Samantha Brady was sitting at the desk in her home office, talking to her attorney on her cell phone. “Look, Bill, I don’t care about what he wants. He is the one who asked for the divorce. He can have the boat, his car and the townhouse in town. I’m keeping this cottage, my car and all the land near the lake my parents left to me. I don’t want any alimony from him. In fact, I don’t want to hear from or see him again. So, let’s get this over and done with.” As she flipped her cell phone closed, her gaze took in the expanse the lake behind the house. The water was calm and blue. Across the horizon, tall fir trees lined the distant shore.
Samantha was tired of dealing with her soon-to-be ex-husband, tired of his lies and deceit, his gambling and womanizing. The divorce couldn’t come soon enough for her. They had been married only two years – two years too many, she thought – and hadn’t started a family, so at least there would be no custody battles. She didn’t want to dwell on this subject any longer and began to focus on the term papers stacked in the corner of her desk. She had two days left to read and grade them before returning them to her students at Sanford High.
One sandwich and three cups of coffee later, Samantha pushed back from her desk and stood up to stretch. Taking a break after finishing half the term papers, she decided to stroll down the lake’s edge. It was mid-afternoon, which was usually when she saw Old Gus, the town’s oldest citizen, hobbling along the beach with his dog, Toby. It dawned on her that she hadn’t seen Old Gus in several days and hoped he was okay.
Old Gus was a thin, wizened old man with tanned leathery skin and a scraggly gray beard that reached almost to his waistline. He always wore jeans and long-sleeved shirts, regardless of the weather, and used a long, whittled stick as his cane. No one knew exactly how old he was, but it seemed as though he had lived in town from the beginning of time. Old Gus had no living family left- just lived with Toby in a three-room house at the edge of town. Almost every day, one person or another would see Old Gus and Toby walking up and down the streets of town with no specific destination in mind. Old Gus rarely spoke to anyone he met on his travels, and Toby never strayed from Old Gus’s side.
Thoughts of Old Gus receded from her mind after she returned home, ate a quick dinner of reheated pot roast, and settled in for the night with one of the books she checked out from the library. The next morning, Samantha, washed, dressed and with a mug of hot coffee, drove down the winding Deep Lake Road into town for some groceries and supplies. At Tagler’s Market, she ran into fellow teacher, Rod Harkness. “Hey, Samantha! Are you going to Barb’s cookout tomorrow?” he asked. Barb Mallory was their good friend and colleague, and held a cookout every May for fellow teachers in the English department and their families. “Hi, Rod. Looking forward to those goodies she always makes. How about you – are you bringing Dee?” she said. Rod looked uncomfortable for a minute, and then said, “No, Dee and I broke up last week. I just couldn’t take the constant demands she made. Nothing seemed to make her happy.” Samantha had liked Dee, so she was surprised at Rod’s words. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Rod. I thought you two would be heading down the bridal path. Are you still going to the cookout?” Again, Rod looked uncomfortable, and then said “No, I’m afraid I’m going to have to miss this one. I have an unfinished project that has to be completed ASAP.” Samantha couldn’t remember a cookout that Rod had missed over the years. She said, “Well, you’ll be missed tomorrow. If you are done early, you should still try to stop over. By the way, have you seen Old Gus lately? I noticed yesterday that it has been several days since I’ve seen him walking along the lake’s edge.” As he started to push his cart down the aisle, Rod said “No, haven’t seen Old Gus either. I have to be going. See you in school Monday.” Samantha wondered what type of project could keep Rod away from a party. He was always easy -going, the life of the party, a person who could lift your spirits when you’ve had a bad day.
Samantha went on to the drug store and hardware store before she headed to Claire’s, the local family restaurant, for lunch with best friend, Marianne Baker. She and Marianne had known each other since college, and saw each other through good times and bad over the years. They had a standing “lunch date” at Claire’s, where they invariably ordered the chicken Caesar salad, tea and Claire’s best chocolate cream pie. Marianne, seated in their usual booth, had already ordered for them. As Samantha sat down, Marianne said, “We’ll have to cut this lunch short. I have a ton of things to do for a wedding I’m working on. I need to work on some last-minute changes by the bride’s mother. How are things going for you?” Samantha related the latest developments of the divorce proceedings and her plans to finish the term papers later today.
While they were finishing the last of their pie, town reporter, Jake Donovan, stopped by their booth. Nodding to them, he said “Mari, Sam. Mind if I join you for a sec?” Marianne allowed Jake to take her spot in the booth, telling him she had to leave soon. “This won’t take long, ladies. Just wondering if you’ve heard the latest. Zach Byer found Toby wandering alone down by Miller’s Landing. He drove Toby over to Old Gus’s, but the place is empty. Zach went to the sheriff’s office to report Gus missing, and then took Toby home so he could take care of him until Gus is located. Samantha told them she noticed Old Gus had not been to the lake for his usual walks for a couple days. “What do you think has happened to him? Maybe he fell and hurt himself on one of his walks. Toby would never leave him alone if he were hurt, though “she said. Marianne agreed, saying, “You know, we’re all so used to seeing him and Toby walking every day, none of us realized he hasn’t been seen until now. I sure do hope he’s found safe and healthy.” Jake told them Sheriff Dalton was sending out a couple deputies and some volunteers to comb the Landing and the road leading to the lake. “Just keep your eyes peeled wherever you go and let Dalton know if you see anything or find Gus. I’m not going to put anything on paper until we have more information. I have to go cover the football game. I’ll catch up with you ladies soon.”
Marianne left Claire’s soon after Jake, leaving ten dollars on the table for her share of the lunch. Samantha paid the bill and was on her way out of the restaurant when Sue, one of the waitresses who worked the day shift, stopped her. “Samantha, could I speak with you?” she said. “Have you seen Rod Harkness or Dee Peterson lately?” Samantha told Sue she had just seen Rod earlier in the day at the grocery store but had not seen Dee for a couple weeks. “Why do you ask?” she said. Sue looked down at the floor, and then looked straight into Samantha’s eyes. “Well, you know Dee works here part-time and we’ve been close friends for a long time. She didn’t show up for work yesterday or today. I tried calling her house and her cell phone with no luck. I had to fill in for her shift today instead of going to my son’s football game. I’m not angry with her, but it’s just not like her to not show up for work, let alone not call anyone. Did Rod say anything about her being sick or something?” Samantha related what Rod had told her about breaking up with her. Sue was surprised, saying Dee had not told her of the break-up, that she seemed really happy a few days ago when she last saw her. Samantha suggested perhaps Dee was upset over the break-up and was avoiding calls. Sue said that was a possibility and that she would drive by Dee’s house when she finished her shift.
On the drive home, Samantha looked for signs of Old Gus along the side of the road without luck. Once she put away groceries and supplies, she settled down to finish the remaining term papers. Her mind kept wandering to thoughts of the disappearances of Old Gus and Dee. Nothing ever happened in this small town. For two people to be missing at the same time was more than unusual. Hopefully, Dee had just closed out the world while she came to terms with her break-up with Rod. It really was odd that they broke up, Samantha thought. They seemed perfect for each other and they seemed happy whenever she saw them together. While Rod was tall, lean and easy-going, Dee was petite, fragile-looking and shy. They seemed to bring out the best in each other and everyone in town thought wedding bells weren’t far away. As for Old Gus, well, no one really knew him, just that he was always walking. Samantha finally forced herself to concentrate on the term papers, finishing them after dinner. She checked her emails, paid some bills online, and then turned in for the night.
The following morning, she showered, dressed and had breakfast. She did a few loads of laundry and straightened up the house before heading over to Barb’s for the cookout. Several of her colleagues and their spouses were already there milling around the pool. A few other teachers trickled after Samantha. She inquired if Barb needed help with anything but Barb had everything under control. Samantha claimed one of the chaise lounge chairs near the shallow end of the pool where Jim Sanders and Gayle Whitson were talking about Old Gus’s disappearance. Barb’s husband, Dave, walked over to the pool and motioned everyone to come over. Dave was a deputy with Sheriff Dalton. “Could I have everyone’s attention, please”, he said. “We have a serious situation developing in town. I’m sure all of you heard about the disappearance of Old Gus and that Zach Byer found Toby wandering by alone. We’ve been conducting a search of the areas around town where Gus may have fallen without much luck. What you might not know is we now have another missing person – Dee Peterson. Sue Kramer came to our office yesterday evening when she couldn’t find Dee. There were no answers to calls to her house and cell phones, so Sue drove over to Dee’s house, then immediately drove to the sheriff’s office. She was extremely upset when she walked in the door, asking us to accompany her to Dee’s house after she told us what she saw. When we arrived at Dee’s on the outskirts of town, we found a broken window in the back of the house. A whittled walking stick was lying on the ground beneath the window. Upon entering the house, we found broken dishes in the kitchen, clothing strewn down the hallway and into the bedroom. The house phone had been unplugged, and her purse and cell phone were on the coffee table. However, we did not find Dee. We determined that the walking stick was the same one used by Old Gus, though we don’t know why it was at Dee’s house. Right now, we’re treating the situation as two missing persons. However, we are also looking at Gus as a person of interest in the disappearance of Dee Peterson. We’ve notified the State Police and asked for their assistance. If anyone has any information that would further this investigation, please don’t hesitate to call our office.”
Samantha asked Dave if the sheriff had spoken to Rod Harkness and proceeded to tell him about Rod breaking up with Dee. Dave said he was on his way to Rod’s house to question him. After Dave left, Samantha and her co-workers discussed their views on the disappearances, what they knew or didn’t know about Gus, Dee and Rod. Soon Barb brought out the appetizers and asked Jim to take over Dave’s job as grill master. Conversation turned to the sharing of classroom war stories and plans for summer vacation.
Dave and another deputy drove up the driveway to Rod Harkness’ house. Rod was working in the back yard seeding the lawn when they approached. “Hi Rod Sorry to bother you but can you spare a minute?” Dave said. Rod stopped seeding, wiped his brow and said, “Sure, what’s up?” Dave asked him when he last spoke to Dee Peterson and Rod told him it was about a week before. Dave confirmed that the two had broken up, and then proceeded to inform Rod of what appeared to be a break-in at Dee’s house and that she was missing. Rod seemed truly shaken, Dave thought. “You know, Dave, Dee sometimes drove me crazy with her insecurities and demands. However, she was a good person. Even though we broke up, I still cared about her. You don’t think Gus had anything to do with her disappearance, do you? I mean, we all think Gus is a strange, yet harmless old man.” Dave shrugged his shoulders, saying “Right now, Rod, we don’t know what to think, with his walking stick lying next to her house. Old Gus never bothered anyone, always kept to himself. Personally, I can’t picture him hurting a soul or doing anything that was against the law. Do you know if Dee had befriended him?” Rod shook his head no and snickered “No way would Dee become friends with Old Gus. She disliked old people for some reason. Didn’t even want to serve them at Claire’s but knew she had to if she wanted to keep her job.” Dave started walking back towards the squad car. “We’ll keep you informed of our progress in this investigation, Rod. Please call the office if you think of anything that would help in the investigation.”
Rod nodded, saying “Sure thing, Dave” as he turned back to finish seeding the lawn.
Several days passed by with no new leads as to the whereabouts of Dee or Old Gus. Calls to law enforcement in nearby towns were unproductive. A week after Zach had found Toby, the electric meter reader found a torn piece of green satin material with the letter “D” embroidered on it in the bushes lining Old Gus’s cottage. Sheriff Dalton confirmed with Rod that the material came from a top owned by Dee. Quite often, she embroidered her initial on her clothes to give them her personal flair.
As time went by, some of the gossip subsided. Sheriff Dalton and his team continued to keep watch over the town, while Jake Donovan pared down his coverage of the disappearances to just one article per week. For the first time in years, Samantha decided not to work over the summer to supplement her income. Now that her divorce was final, she did not need the extra income and looked forward to doing some renovation projects around the cottage. Jake, pretty handy with hammer and nails, offered to help put up a new deck for her on weekends over the summer. At first, they shared lunches together when they took breaks from their work. By mid-summer, they were casually dating. They had been friends for many years and truly enjoyed each other’s company. Marianne told Samantha Jake was a good catch. However, Samantha was not ready for a serious relationship and definitely was not thinking of marriage.
At the end of July, Samantha and Jake were working on placing flagstone on the footpath leading from her cottage to the far edge of the lake. Jake had been digging and leveling out the dirt path, while Samantha placed the flagstone. They were almost near the water’s edge when suddenly Jake’s shovel hit something hard. He dug a few more inches down, uncovering the lid to a plastic storage bin. Jake called Samantha over asking if she knew anything about the bin. She was just as perplexed as Jake was because she had never seen the bin before. They both dug around the bin until they were able to pull it out of the hole. It was pretty heavy and the smell was almost overpowering. Thinking it could be someone’s dead pet, or it could be one of the missing persons, they opted to call Sheriff Dalton out to the house. Dalton arrived with Dave half an hour later. Upon opening the bin, they realized they were most likely seeing Dee’s body, still draped with the remainder of the green satin top.
Once the medical examiner determined her identity, Rod and Sue arranged for a small funeral service since Dee had no living relatives. Rod had been unusually quiet since Dee went missing, not his normal self. Everyone attributed the change in him to his regret for not being there for her. Crime scene investigation of Samantha’s property did not reveal any evidence of who had placed Dee’s remains there, especially since it had been well over one month since her disappearance.
The common consensus was that Old Gus had attacked Dee for some unknown reason. When he realized he had killed her, he buried her body at the lake, probably during the day while Samantha was teaching at school. Afraid being caught and sent to jail, he left town the same day, leaving Toby behind to throw authorities off the track. Sheriff Dalton issued an APB for Gus two days after Dee’s funeral. It wouldn’t do much good, the killer mused. Only he knew where Gus was, and he certainly wasn’t going to call the sheriff’s office. It was a nice ceremony, he thought as he drove away from the cemetery.
To Be Continued