Miss Dimple Disappears: A Mysteryby Mignon F. Ballard
It's 1942, almost a year since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the residents of the small town of Elderberry, Georgia, have been rattled down to their worn, rationed shoes. For young teacher Charlie Carr, life and love aren't going exactly as plannedher head dictates loyalty to the handsome corpsman, Hugh, but whenever she thinks of her best friend's… See more details below
It's 1942, almost a year since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the residents of the small town of Elderberry, Georgia, have been rattled down to their worn, rationed shoes. For young teacher Charlie Carr, life and love aren't going exactly as plannedher head dictates loyalty to the handsome corpsman, Hugh, but whenever she thinks of her best friend's beau, Will, her heart does the Jersey Bounce. Charlie is doubly troubled by the disappearance of beloved schoolmistress Miss Dimple Kilpatrick one frosty November morning just before Thanksgiving. Miss Dimple, who has taught the town's first gradersincluding Charliefor almost forty years, would never just skip town in the middle of the school year, and Charlie and her best friend, Annie, are determined to prove it.
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Miss Dimple Disappears
By Mignon F. Ballard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Mignon F. Ballard
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
Geneva Odom ladled a spoonful of pancake batter into the skillet and tugged her robe tighter around her. Was that the first bell already? Surely not! She glanced at the clock over the stove and sighed in relief. She had almost an hour to finish breakfast and open her classroom on time. Must've been the wind.
* * *
Charlie Carr unlocked the door of her third-grade classroom and made a face. Christmas had bypassed her again — Christmas being the school's janitor, Wilson "Christmas" Malone, so named because he was as slow as. Shavings from the pencil sharpener littered the floor and the trash can was filled to overflowing with wads of paper, an apple core from somebody's lunch, and a couple of day-old banana peels that reeked to high heaven. Charlie set the trash can out in the hall and turned on the overhead lights. The whole world seemed washed in gray and the lights did little to dispel the gloom. Outside she could hear the voices of children playing on bare red earth and slate rock where no grass ever grew. It hadn't been many years since Charlie had been one of them chanting, "Mother, may I?" and "Red rover"; building moss and stick houses under the sheltering oaks, and declaring war on the boys who tore them down.
But that was before she knew what war was.
Charlie pulled her faded green cardigan around her. She had sewn patches where the elbows had worn thin in an effort to make it last. Wool was hard to come by since the war began, and who knew how long it might last. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without, the government was fond of saying, and Charlie couldn't see that they had much choice.
She looked at the rows of empty desks, all fastened to the floor, and each with its little inkwell in the right-hand corner, although nobody used inkwells anymore. What on earth was she doing here? This wasn't the place she had meant to be. She had dreamed of becoming an archaeologist discovering ancient treasures in some mysterious land or an explorer hacking her way through the jungles of Africa, but of course she knew that would never be. Professional choices for women were limited, and Charlie Carr had no desire to become a secretary or a nurse.
Well, here she was, and that was that! And how could she not care for these children who had become like her own? Charlie agonized over the boy who came to school barefoot on a frosty October morning, the girl in shabby clothing often absent because she had to help at home.
"Well?" Annie Gardner spoke from the doorway.
"Well, what?" Charlie smiled as she erased from the blackboard all twenty-five sentences of I will not make faces in class, which Willie Elrod had laboriously written the day before, and pretended to rearrange pencils in the jar on her desk.
Annie's sigh sounded bigger than she was and she did a couple of steps of her own choreography in place. A zealous would-be dancer and thespian, this was her first year at Elderberry Grammar School since the two received their teaching certificates from Brenau College and — unlike Charlie, who towered over her at five feet ten — she wasn't a whole lot taller than some of her fourth-grade students. Now she tapped an impatient foot. "You know very well what. I know you went out with Hugh last night, so don't pretend with me."
Charlie turned away from her friend's sly, expectant smile and held a hand to the radiator. "Is it cold in here to you?"
Annie crossed her arms and shivered. "Looks like Christmas is late again. Does the man ever get here on time? I haven't heard a peep out of the furnace, and it'll probably take half the morning for that old monstrosity to heat up."
"Trash hasn't been emptied, either," Charlie said, nodding toward the wastebasket in the hallway. "I heard our principal reading him the riot act after school yesterday, and was hoping he'd improve. Maybe we should all chip in and get Christmas a new alarm clock. Do you think he'd get the hint?"
"I think you still haven't answered my question," Annie persisted. "What happened with Hugh last night?" Charlie busied herself wiping chalk dust from her fingers and sneezed. "Are you sure you can handle the excitement?"
"Try me," Annie said.
"We went to see that Thin Man movie at the picture show — the new one with Myrna Loy and William Powell — and then he brought me home and ate up what was left of the lemon meringue pie in the Frigidaire."
"And that's it?" Annie asked.
"'Fraid so. Anything else you want to know?"
Annie shook her head and paused, and Charlie knew she was thinking up an appropriate quote from the great bard. "'Lord, what fools these mortals be!' Surely he said something."
Charlie frowned as if in serious thought. "Right. 'You be sure and tell Miss Jo that's the best pie I ever put in my mouth,'" she mimicked, stretching to her full height. She hadn't told him that the pie had been made by Evie McDaniel, who cooked for them occasionally. Her mother, Josephine Carr, could do little more than scramble an egg, which was why Charlie took her noon meal with several of the other teachers at Phoebe Chadwick's boardinghouse.
Charlie had been seeing Hugh Brumlow almost exclusively for over a year now and he would soon be called up for service, so naturally just about everyone — especially Annie — expected him to propose. But Charlie, caught up in the tide of war and romance, found herself in a tug-of-war with her emotions. His kisses stirred desires in her that terrified and thrilled her, and the thought of him soon going off to war was like an icicle piercing her heart, but she was distressed as well about her brother, Fain, and others who had left to fight.
Looking over her shoulder she saw that Annie was still there. "Don't you have some place to go — like your own classroom maybe?"
Annie looked at her watch. "Guess I had better skedaddle. It's almost time for the bell and they'll be lining up outside ... but, Charlie ..." She hesitated in the doorway.
Charlie cocked an eyebrow and grinned. "Annie ...?"
"Hugh cares about you. Really. I know he does. Just wait and see."
Charlie shook her head as Annie rumbaed into her classroom next door, and hurriedly began writing the reading assignment on the board. She wasn't going to think about Hugh Brumlow. She wasn't going to think about his eyes so blue they could burn a hole in your heart, or the funny, stubborn tuft of hair no amount of brushing or hair tonic could conquer.
And she certainly wasn't going to think about his mouth ... mmm ... oh, no — and how his lips felt against her own. Charlie Carr had enough on her mind without worrying about Hugh Brumlow.
Everyone knew Hugh would've already enlisted if his mother hadn't had to have her appendix out, then suffered what she claimed were "setbacks," taking what seemed forever to recuperate. Doc Morrison, who performed the surgery, had told his wife, who told Charlie's mother, that when he made the incision her appendix looked perfectly healthy to him.
The early-morning sun hadn't worked its way to their side of the building and the classroom seemed drab in the gray November chill in spite of the colorful drawings of Indians and Pilgrims marching along the walls, the American flag above the portrait of George Washington, and the purple felt banner the class had won for having the most mothers attend the last PTA meeting.
In an hour or so, when Christmas Malone finally got around to stoking the furnace, the room would become so close and warm Charlie would have to open windows to let in cooling air. Already the place smelled of dust, mildewed galoshes, and forgotten bananas, and she decided a room cleaning would have to be a priority since it was apparent the school's janitor had skipped them once again.
Charlie glanced at the bulletin board to be reminded that Mary Ann Breedlove was scheduled to lead her classmates in a selection of patriotic songs that morning. Classes always began with a ten-minute period during which students recited the Pledge to the Flag, listened to a brief verse of scriptures from the Bible, and were led in a morning prayer. From time to time the ritual centered on a theme, and freedom, loyalty, and courage had been popular subjects since the war began the year before.
Throwing a jacket around her shoulders, Charlie stepped into the hallway and was on her way to greet her third-grade students at the back steps when the first bell rang.
For blocks around, school-age children in the small Georgia town kissed their mothers, grabbed their books, and started out on a run when they heard the lusty clanging. The bell hung in the belfry over the red brick building that housed grades one through four as it had when Charlie's parents went to school there. If a child wasn't present to line up when the principal rang the second bell five minutes later, he or she was marked tardy and required to "stay in" during recess — or worse, after school.
"Did you hear the bell ring earlier?" Geneva Odom, who taught second grade, stood in the hallway outside her classroom, brimming wastebasket in hand. "I could've sworn it rang while I was cooking breakfast this morning, but it was much too early, so I guess it was my imagination."
"Or a bad dream," Charlie answered, "except I thought I heard it, too."
Excerpted from Miss Dimple Disappears by Mignon F. Ballard. Copyright © 2010 Mignon F. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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