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Sheriff Delton Ross shifted in his chair. Through his office window, he watched late-August heat waves rise from the black macadam in the department's parking lot. Half heartedly, the sixty year old Ross also listened to the improbable tale coming from the mouth of Ennis Archer. She was a local woman and a sister to Dave Fairmont, a man who had recently run off and abandoned his wife of at least thirty years. The whole town knew the story. Dave had left a letter for Lila upon his departure, and she'd cooperatively shown the entire town its contents. Case closed; had been for months: except, apparently for Ennis.
"I'm telling you Delt, my brother wouldn't do that. Not without getting in touch with one of us . . . the ones he really loved . . . sometime or somehow."
That was a fact, Ross thought. The Fairmonts had always been more of a clan than a family--hard to get inside of.
"And then there's Edgar," Ennis said with a firm nod.
"Edgar? Edgar who?" Ross couldn't believe Lila had taken up with another man, nor could he think of any man in the entire county named Edgar. Where'd this guy come from?
"He's the neighbor's dog," Ennis patiently explained. "Sits and howls over that rose garden of Lila's day in and day out. Lila even built a fence to try and keep the thing off her land. But that dog just sits on the other side of that fence and howls anyway."
Ennis's hard, gray-green eyes gave the sheriff a look that said, "There, now. What do you think of that?"
Ross blinked, then leaned forward in his chair. Ennis now had his full attention.
"What kind of dog is it?" Ross asked, taking care to keep his deep voice neutral. An avid sportsman, Ross knew his dogs. This could mean something, but he sure didn't want to get Ennis any more riled up than she already was.
"Oh, heavens," the woman responded wide eyed. "How on earth would I know?"
Ross bit back a sigh and slumped back in his seat. "Which neighbor of hers is it that has this dog?"
"Ed Bracken; house just behind Lila's." Ennis studied the sheriff a moment, then said, "You gonna go out there? You gonna follow up on this?"
"Yeah, Ennis. I'll go have a talk with Ed. See what's going on. But I'm not promising a thing. You saw that letter your brother left behind, right?"
"Sure. But I don't believe a word of it."
* * * * *
"So's Lila filed a complaint against my Edgar?" Ed Bracken asked some twenty minutes later. With a worried frown, the old man swung the screen door open to admit the sheriff into the small, clapboard house.
"No. But I've heard your dog is giving Lila fits," Ross said on a chuckle.
"Yup. That he is," Bracken answered, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
As if on cue, at that moment, Edgar made his appearance. The white, tan, and black dog sniffed the sheriff's pant legs, then stepped back and emitted a single woof.
"Good lookin' hound," Ross told Bracken.
"Yup. It's a basset. Got him from a breeder over in Hendrickson County. Bit of a drive, but worth it."
Bracken led the sheriff into the tiny living room and waved a hand at the sagging couch. Ross sat, holding his hat in his hands, between his knees. He was located directly in the path of a draft from a fan, but it didn't help much. The room was still overly warm and muggy.
"What's goin' on then? Why the visit?" Bracken eased himself into a small armchair; the dog settled himself beside his master.
"When did all this start, Ed?"
The old man closed his eyes a minute, then said, "Think it started when Lila put in that rose bed of hers. Before that, she and Edgar were thick as thieves. Had me a little concerned, that did. Bassets are pretty loyal dogs. Didn't want his loyalties confused, you know?"
Ross nodded. It reminded him of his ongoing tug of war with his wife over their Brittany spaniel. Damned dog absolutely adored Tabitha for feeding him so well.
"And Edgar's still at it, then? The howling?"
"Yeah. Would be, if I let him. I walk him on a leash, now, and keep him a good distance from that yard of Lila's."
* * * * *
The way Ross saw it, he had two potential moves. He could go to the State's Attorney, hat in hand, with this tale of a howling basset and push for a search warrant to dig up the rose bed. Or he could go talk to the woman. He'd had a lot of luck over the years with his little chats.
Ross knew bassets were stubborn dogs, unwilling to let things go. He also knew that when they thought something was wrong, they howled. But the State's Attorney wasn't a dog man. Ross could just see a long-winded effort ahead in trying to convince Paul Trimmer of the need to follow up on this odd situation. That's why, when he exited Bracken's house, he turned his steps toward Lila's place.
Best as he could recall, Lila had always been a quiet person: meek and mouse-like, a go along to get along type of soul. Ross made it his business to know the people in his county and to tote them up on one side of the ledger or the other. Lila seemed to have jumped from one side of his tally to the opposite side of the page.
Ross pulled a deep breath. Just three more years before retirement, he reminded himself as he trod through the sodden air. Then, he'd take to the woods and fields and local ponds and leave the crazies for somebody else to deal with.
Removing his hat from his head, Ross now mounted the three wooden stairs to Lila Fairmont's porch. Two more strides and he was across her porch and at her door. Without pausing, he reached out and gave the door five firm raps.
Lila Fairmont's eyes flew open in surprise to find the sheriff standing at her front door.
"Yes?" she asked tentatively, her free hand fluttering to her throat.
"Can I come in a minute?" Ross replied.
Lila backed away from the door and made for the living room. Ross stepped through the doorway and followed her. "That sister-in-law of yours was by my office earlier today. Says nobody's heard hide nor hair of Dave since he took off. She thinks that's odd. Any chance I could see that letter of his again?"
"I'll be out in the kitchen, Lila, when you get back with it. Hope you don't mind that."
"No, of course not." The woman headed toward a hallway which led to the east side of the house. The sheriff made his way through the living and dining rooms to the kitchen, where he stood at the back window, studying the backyard stretching out before him.
At the sound of Lila's footsteps, he turned and said, "Say. That's some rose garden you've got there. Tabitha, my wife, has been after me for years to put in one of those. How about we go outside, so I can get a better look at it."
Lila looked down at the letter in her hands, then glanced back up at the sheriff.
"That's okay. You can bring the letter with you," Ross said, not unkindly.
The woman's shoulders sagged, but she followed the sheriff out the door. Once on the back porch, Ross pulled his hat from under his arm, and lifted his right arm high into the air before setting the hat atop his head: the agreed signal for Ed Bracken to turn Edgar loose.
Together, Ross and Lila crossed the lawn to the flower bed. Before they'd even reached it, the plaintive howl of the basset hound broke the quiet of a hot, oppressive, August afternoon.
"It was his arrogance," Lila said, turning toward the sheriff. "Before the man left, he expected me to fix his dinner. So I did."
"I'm gonna have to take you in."
She nodded and put forth her slender wrists. "I'd always wanted children, but we couldn't have any. David wouldn't adopt. Said they wouldn't be true Fairmonts."
"Better you don't tell me anything more, Lila," Ross said. Then he gave her the Miranda warning. Afterwards, he placed the cuffs about her wrists, more to meet her expectations rather than from any concern on his part. He doubted he had much to fear from this woman. Sometimes the meek got tired of sitting around, waiting to inherit the Earth--especially when somebody pulled the rug out from under them.
He told himself that he was just the hunter. He rounded the people up who broke the law and left it to others to deliver justice. Lila's future, whatever it was, would now be in the hands of a jury of her peers or of a judge: a fact for which he was most grateful.