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January 2015

 

 

Book 18 in the Foxglove Corner Mysteries

Excerpt

Chapter One

An April sun sent its golden rays streaming through the windows of the classroom, illuminating student desks arranged in neat rows, the old teacher’s desk with the red tulip plant in its center, and bulletin boards dressed in their springtime finery.

All orderly and clean and as inviting as I could make it, all ready to welcome a lively World Literature class to this room that would never feel like mine.

I pushed open the door and dropped my purse and the mail on the desk. I had ten minutes before the first students began to trickle in. Time to summon enthusiasm for the hours ahead and make sure the day’s quizzes and worksheets were ready. Time to turn myself into a bright and energetic teacher even though the day was far too lovely to spend in school.

Say something like that to Principal Grant Grimsley, and he’d recoil in horror. He’d make a new note in my personnel file.

Well, I wouldn’t be so foolish.

We were finishing To Kill a Mockingbird in this class, reviewing in Journalism, and writing an impromptu essay in American Literature Survey. It promised to be an easy day. After all, it was Friday, and it was spring.

I unlocked the closet door, slipped out of my raincoat, reached for the hanger, and...

From the back of the room, a gunshot tore through the early morning stillness. It echoed and continued to echo. The air filled with an acrid smell.

My blood turned to ice, and my heart began racing as if it would burst out of my chest. The raincoat fell out of my hand. I whirled around, expecting to see a scene from hell: students in panicked flight, bodies on the floor, blood seeping onto the dark tile.

Just like the last time.

The room was empty. No one lurked amid the rows. There was no place to lurk. No gun. No shooter.

Then what had I heard?

In my mind, I heard it still. Gunfire in an empty classroom. And it was empty. I couldn’t doubt the evidence of my eyes.

Still, I hurried to the door, expecting to see some sign of alarm in the hall. It was practically deserted. Two boys stood at their locker, engrossed in animated conversation. A stray dog who had evaded the monitor made its way down the hall, sniffing at the floor. My good friend and fellow teacher, Leonora, came slowly around the corner, balancing a coffee mug in her hand.

Shouldn’t somebody besides me be shocked, alarmed, or, at least, curious?

No. Not if nothing had happened.

~ * ~


“That’s a pretty dress, Mrs. Ferguson.”

It was linen, yellow with crisp white trim. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing down at my chest, hoping I wouldn’t see blood seeping through the bodice.

“Thank you, Sylvia,” I murmured.

“Oh, you dropped your coat.” She picked it up and handed it to me. Automatically I hung it on the hanger and thanked her again.

The first bell rang. In five minutes, there’d be another bell to start class.

Pull yourself together, Itoldmyself. You can’t afford to do anything else.

“Where did you get the tulip plant?” Sylvia asked.

“It was delivered yesterday.” I smiled, forcing my way back to normalcy. “A gift from Anonymous. It’s a mystery.”

“Someone likes you,” she said. “A lot.”

“I guess so.”

There’d been no message on the card. Not even ‘Happy Spring.’ Just my name: Jennet Ferguson.

That made a new mystery in my life. No, two. Flowers from an unknown sender and the sound of gunfire in an empty room where there was no shooter.

Imagination was a powerful entity. Especially mine.

But could imagination conjure a sound of gunfire and a smell of smoke?

Last year’s shooting at Marston High School in Oakpoint, Michigan, was far removed from this glorious spring day, both in time and space. The school’s first violent incident, it had torn apart my American Literature class and the entire school as well. At the end of a few minutes of terror, one of my students lay dead, another was critically wounded, and the gunman—scarcely a man…a boy—had been subdued.

How naïve to believe recovery would be so easy.

With a minimum of chatter, the class found their seats. Jackie and Veronica passed out the class sets. I opened my gradebook and took attendance. All the familiar routines of the school day acted as healing balm. But my hand shook as I wrote the names of the absentees on the attendance slip, and I still felt cold.

We were going to read the riveting climax of To Kill a Mockingbird aloud in class this morning. Losing myself in Harper Lee’s story was the best way to banish the memory of what had happened. Whatever it was that had happened.

~ * ~



At eleven-thirty, Leonora brought her lunch tray into my room and set it on the table we used to lay out the school newspaper.

“Oh, what a beautiful day!” She gazed at her hamburger and French fries without interest and pushed her long blonde hair back. “It’s too nice to be in school.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I said. “The weekend is supposed to be warm.”

I unwrapped my ham sandwich and, not looking up, said, “Before first hour, did you hear a loud noise?”

“Inside or out?”

“Inside. Here in H Hall.”

“What kind of noise?” she asked.

“Like a gunshot.”

“Good heavens, no. I never want to hear a gunshot again. Actually it’s quiet so far. My classes have been half full. Grimsley is going to have a fit.”

“It isn’t our fault,” I said. “It’s been a terrible winter. No one can blame us if we go a little crazy when the temperature climbs to seventy.”

I realized what I’d said. Go a little crazy--and imagine the sound of a gun being fired.

“So you didn’t hear anything?” I asked.

“Nothing unusual. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” I said.

I should tell her about hearing the gunshot, but I didn’t. In truth, I couldn’t.

It was the first time anything like this had happened to me, and I didn’t understand it. It had been so long since the shooting. Months. The slain boy had been laid to rest; the wounded girl, Jessica, had recovered. Leonora and I, who for years had shared a spacious room separated by a divider, had been moved to another part of the building. Memories of the incident had settled uneasily into the past.

Why should I be hearing a gunshot? And why now? The shooting hadn’t even happened in this room.

Suddenly I longed for my peaceful, quiet life in Foxglove Corners. The daffodils were in bloom on Jonquil Lane. My green Victorian farmhouse was sparkling in the sunlight. My husband, Crane, was there, and our six collies.

That was my reality.

I resolved to banish the incident from my mind, took another bite of my sandwich, and asked Leonora about her weekend plans.

~ * ~

The day passed. In my afternoon classes, attendance was poor. The sun warmed the room to an uncomfortable degree, and the best of my students grew restless. The bizarre incident, rather non-incident, refused to be banished.

After school, I dropped Leonora off at her pink Victorian house and drove home in a light afternoon haze, wishing I’d been able to confide in her.

She would think I’d gone over the edge, and she was my long-time friend, always quick to defend me. Heaven knew what Principal Grimsley would think.

So, pretend it didn’t happen. So far no one else knew about the gunshot.

The daffodils were indeed blooming on Jonquil Lane, creating a yellow brick road that led to home. The house was waiting for me, just as I’d longed to find it. Pale green turrets rising to the clouds and, between twin gables, stained glass windows sparkling in the sunlight. Everything was brighter and fresher in the country.

Your life will be better in Foxglove Corners, the house seemed to say.

I’d always been fanciful about Foxglove Corners, always fanciful about anything, in fact.

But today’s episode wasn’t fancy. An invisible shooter whose bullet couldn’t be seen while its sound rang out in an empty room was the stuff of nightmares.

I parked the Taurus and savored the sight of the landscape around me, all new and green.

Crane wasn’t home yet. The dogs were, all of them barking a raucous welcome. Raven, the rare black and white collie who lived outside, came bounding out from the back and danced around the car, while the eager faces of Candy and Misty appeared in the kitchen window. The other collies, Halley, Sky and Gemmy, were more laid back.

Raven raced ahead of me, first in the house, and I was immediately engulfed in collie fur, nudging noses, and flying paws. The classroom in H Hall and the sound of gunfire retreated farther into the past.

Crane had left me a note, propped up on a cobalt milk bottle filled with spring wildflowers: Honey—home later today. Keep the home fires burning. Crane

I dropped my purse and schoolwork on the oak table in the kitchen, the nearest catch-all, and reflected on this most unusual Friday.

After first hour, the rest of the school day had been uneventful and easy, as anticipated, with occasional flashbacks to the gunshot incident during infrequent lulls in classwork. On the ride from Oakpoint to Foxglove Corners, Leonora had talked incessantly about shopping for a new dress at Maplewood Mall and her tentative Saturday night date with Deputy Sheriff Jake Brown.

“Something in blue, I think,” she’d said. “Blue is Jake’s favorite color.”

She wore a lot of blue and had an impressive collection of sapphire jewelry. The color set off her honey blonde hair. With a jolt, I came back to the present.

Dinner tonight would be easy, too. Steaks, baked potatoes, and salad. Nothing easier, with half of yesterday’s lemon meringue pie for dessert. I had time to walk three of the dogs.

Which three?

Candy, my saucy tricolor, had her leash in her mouth, a new trick she’d taught herself. Snow-white Misty, scarcely out of puppyhood, was tossing her toy goat at me. Sky, my shy blue merle, gazed at me longingly.

Candy and Misty, then, and Sky. I snapped on Sky’s lead. Crane would take the other three out after dinner. They were used to the routine. I, like them, thrived on routine.

~ * ~



The last house on the lane was the yellow Victorian where my friend and aunt by marriage, Camille, lived with her husband and dogs. About a mile after that, the daffodils gave way to wildflowers and woods, but the lane continued, ending in another country road, more woods, and farmland.

This wild tract ahead might have been a development once if the builder hadn’t gone bankrupt and moved out of the state. I still referred to these acres as the new development, even though its fate had been sealed long ago.

The developer had left a strange legacy in his wake: half-finished houses built in French chateau style. Slowly but surely they were being reclaimed by nature. It was already an eerie place, hospitable to wildlife and, I suspected, an occasional vagrant. It was also a source of endless fascination for the curious collies.

It seemed even more eerie than usual today. Almost sinister.

During one of Foxglove Corners’ windstorms, a tree had fallen, taking down the north wall of the chateau farthest from the road with it. Another storm, and the entire structure would collapse.

Something should be done about the new construction. It was unsightly and dangerous—and at present the only destination in the world for Candy.

“Heel,” I said sharply, tugging on the leash as she veered toward the lane’s edge. “Candy, heel!”

Misty chose this moment to step into a narrow hole hidden by fallen leaves. Screeching her terror, she tried to claw her way back to level ground. I reached down to guide her. Candy knew all about choosing moments. She wrenched her leash out of my hand and dashed into the brush, trailing six feet of leather.

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