A Skull is Found
"Sure wish this was Saturday instead of Thursday,” Chief Deputy Webster Gage said to himself as he slowly backed his patrol car out of the driveway, and headed east down the dusty gravel road towards town. “This would be a great day to go fishin’ for channel cats in the Raccoon River.”
It was early fall, and the weather was near perfect. The blue sky had only a few wispy clouds to get in the way of the promised sunshine. Tall corn, on both sides of the road, was rapidly turning from green to brown, and soon would come under assault by an army of huge green and red harvesting machines.
Deputy Gage reached over and switched on the small battery powered radio that he kept on the seat beside him. It was against the sheriff’s rules to have a personal radio in the car but being chief deputy allowed him a little leeway. “They will be continuing discussions on scaling back their intermediate missile arsenals in Europe,” the commentator announced, discussing the upcoming meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík, Iceland. Web quickly switched to KWKY, a country music station.
Arriving at the building that housed both the sheriff’s office and county jail, Gage said a quick “Good morning” to Janice, the plus-sized office manager, as he headed for the tiny deputy’s office in the back. Looking up from her typewriter, Janice gave him her best smile. Sporting a short chevron style mustache, and with a few reddish-brown locks remaining on his balding head, Web was still considered a handsome man. He had held the position of chief deputy for the last four years of the nearly fifteen years he had been with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. In his 40’s and divorced with two grown children, he was looking forward to taking over as sheriff when the current sheriff retired. Although he seldom discussed it with Sheriff Walford, it was more or less understood the chief deputy would run for the position of sheriff when the current occupant retired at the end of his next term. Web was well-liked by the entire sheriff’s office staff and he had made several friends among the elected Republicans in the courthouse. His nomination by the Republican party to be their sheriff candidate, and his election to the position, would be a snap, he had been told.
As usual, the desk he shared with three other deputies was cluttered with various reports and summonses to be served. Strangely, the stack marked “Web” was smaller than the other three stacks. “Either the sheriff is finally making those other slackers do their share of the work, or something’s up,” Web mumbled to himself.
“Gage in yet? I need to see him ’bout this damn skull they found up near Perry.” Web could hear the sheriff, on the other side of the closed door, yelling to Janice. A second later, the grey steel door to the deputy’s office opened and Sheriff Lem Walford stepped in.
Sheriff Lemuel Walford was a man who commanded respect, not only for his size (over 6 feet tall and pushing 250 pounds), but for his confident manner. He was not the type of man you argued with, unless you were dead sure of your position. The voters of Dallas County, a fast-growing Iowa county just west of the capital city of Des Moines, respected him enough to elect him three times to be their top law enforcer.
“Mornin’ Web,” Sheriff Walford said as he handed him several papers held together with an alligator clip. “Seen this yet?”
“No, just got here,” Web admitted. “What is it?”
“Oh, no big deal. Couple kids found a human skull along the Raccoon River up by Perry. Probably an Indian, or some other ancient human of some sort. None-the-less, I want you to go up there and investigate it, just like we really did give-a-shit. Perry folks is all talkin’ ’bout it and, with this election coming up, we can’t afford to let them think they’re being ignored.”
“I’ll head up there this morning,” Web replied. “What else is goin’ on?”
“Nothing we can’t handle while you’re out,” the sheriff replied as he headed back to his office.
Web finished his paperwork as he sipped the last drops of coffee from his favorite mug. The coffee had turned cold, and cold coffee was something that Web had never developed much of a liking for. He swallowed it anyway and searched in his pocket for the fresh pack of gum he always carried. It was times like these that Web still craved a cigarette. It had been over seven years since he was finally able to kick the smoking habit, but this time in the morning, with the taste of coffee lingering in his mouth, he still craved a Marlboro. Shoving a stick of Clove gum in his mouth, he opened the door and slid into the seat of his black and white Ford LTD police cruiser.
Web took his time on the twenty-mile drive to Perry, enjoying the scenery and the fine weather. As he approached the Perry Municipal Police Station, where the skull was being kept, he took note of the white Chevy van with WHO-TV in big black and red letters on the side. Uh-oh, this ain’t gonna be as simple as I was hoping, Web thought to himself. Lem shoulda handled this himself. He never misses a chance to be on camera, ’specially with an election coming up.
Meghan, the pretty young brunette who served as dispatcher for the Perry police station, smiled at Web as he walked through the door. “They’re waitin; for ya back in Doyle’s office,” she said, motioning with her head towards the chief’s office.
“Good morning to you too, Meghan,” Web smiled, heading down the hall to the closed door marked: Doyle Haynes---Chief of Police.
As he reached for the knob, he heard the raspy voice of Chief Haynes on the other side. “Come on in, Web.” Meghan had already informed the Chief, via the intercom, that Web had arrived. “Hope you combed those few red hairs left on that head a yours,” Haynes laughed, “cause your ugly mug is ’bout to be on the TV news.”
Haynes was enjoying the attention from the big-city news people. Perry, a city with a dwindling population of 8,000 in the northern part of Dallas County, seldom had anything happen newsworthy enough to attract the attention of WHO-TV.
Web was no stranger to the citizens of Perry. He grew up in this city, which was once a booming railroad town on the Milwaukee line. Perry was where he had spent his youth, mowing yards, delivering newspapers and attending her schools. And it was here in Perry that Web got his start in the law enforcement profession. His first job, in that capacity, was with the City of Perry Police Department as a part-time night watchman. The fact that most members of the police department had known him since he was a boy, and that he spent much of his free time hanging around the station, probably helped him land the job more than his qualifications did.
Growing up without a father, Web lived with his widowed mother in a small apartment above one of Perry’s downtown businesses. A friendly, polite and helpful boy, all the merchants and downtown workers knew and liked him. In school, he was a mediocre student but a good athlete. After winning many football games for hometown Perry, as their star quarterback for both his junior and senior years, Web graduated from Perry’s high school as a local hero.
Web’s night watchman job was at a time when the “blue laws” were still in effect in Iowa. Taverns could stay open until two a.m. during the week but had to be closed by 12 o’clock sharp on Saturday nights, so there would be no drinking establishment open on any part of the sabbath. Not wanting to break the law, most innkeepers set their clocks at least ten minutes ahead on Saturday nights. There were always a few rowdy kids to send home and occasionally a drunk to deal with, but other than that, the job quickly became routine…and boring. But it did give him experience to take to his next job as chief of police of Redfield’s (population 800) one-man police force. He served ably in that capacity for a few years before joining the Dallas County Sheriff’s office.
Walking into Hayne’s office, Web noticed a young man in a colorful red and blue Hawaiian shirt and short khaki hiking pants. His scraggly locks were shoulder-length, uncombed and he had a three-day growth of beard on his face. Seeing his hair and clothing made Web want to arrest him for something. He was holding an expensive-looking video camera and peering into the vue-finder. As Web entered the room, he noticed the look on the young man’s face, a look that hinted he was, like many other long-hairs, uncomfortable in the presence of officers-of-the-law.
Standing close by Chief Haynes, and smelling of expensive perfume, stood a blonde woman wearing a red wool sweater and a dark grey skirt. She was probably in her late thirties or early forties, but from the effort she put into her appearance, it was difficult to pin down her true age. She was still shapely, but you could tell it was becoming more of a battle for her to stay that way. Her genuine smile and sparkling blue eyes caught Web’s attention right off, and for a moment he had difficulty keeping his eyes off her.
“So, let’s have a look at this thing that’s got everybody so excited.” Web said. Haynes face turned more serious as he pointed to a weathered brownish-white skull sitting on a small table behind his desk. Web guessed that the cameraman in the colorful shirt had probably set it there so that he could film it from all angles.
“Web likes to get right down to business,” Haynes told the two newspersons, almost apologetically. “This here skull was turned into my office by the boys that found it, but they found it outside the city limits so it’s the county’s problem.”
“Could I get a statement from you?” the blonde reporter asked, shoving the microphone in Web’s face. The man with the camera turned and focused his lens on Web. “Tell us what you’re going to do with the skull. Any idea how old it is? Where are you going to take it? Will there be a full investigation?”
“Hang on there, Lady,” Web protested as he pushed the microphone away from his face. “At this point you know as much as I do. I’ll take the skull back to Adel with me, and the sheriff can decide what he wants to do with it. Check with him in a few days, and he’ll have more answers than I can give you now.” Turning to Haynes, Web added, “I’ll need to talk to at least one of the boys that brought this thing in. I’d like him to show me where they found it.”
“I’ll call one of the boy’s mother right now,” Haynes offered, picking up the phone. “Nice lady. Works at the Hotel Pattee, just down the street. I’m sure she’ll be glad to help.”
“Meantime, I’ll load up this fella, whoever he is, and check in with Lem,” Web said, picking up the skull. “I’ll be out in my car if you need me.”
As Web made his way down the hallway, a feint smell of expensive perfume told him the blonde reporter was just behind him. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself,” she said, handing the microphone to the cameraman. “I’m Sonia Cummins with WHO-TV. You may have seen me on the air on Channel 13 News. I cover local interest stories. And the uncovering of a human skull is certainly interesting.”
“Can’t say as I’ve heard of you,” Web fibbed as he stepped out into the bright sunshine of the early fall day. He had actually seen Sonia several times on channel 13 news, and he had recognized her as soon as he stepped into Haynes’s office. But for some reason he couldn’t quite explain, he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being recognized. Since his first days in law enforcement, and as a cop in the small town of Redfield, he had learned not to trust reporters. And a big-city reporter, with a fruity looking cameraman following her, would certainly be no exception.
“Would it be all-right if I followed along when you check out the sight where the skull was found,” Sonia asked as Web stepped into his car. “I’ll try not to get in your way.”
“Guess I can’t stop you,” Web answered, feigning a disgusted tone. “It’s a free country, after all. But I don’t see why you’re making such a fuss over an ancient skull. It probably belongs to some Indian who died of old age a few hundred years ago. Nothing for a big-city reporter to get in a snoot over. Why don’t you just wait ’till we get this checked out and do your story then?”
“Kyle studied archeology at University of Iowa,” Sonia replied, nodding towards her cameraman. “He thinks the skull is less than a hundred years old. If that’s true, there weren’t many Indians around then.”
“I’ll wait for the experts to determine how old it is,” Web replied in a dismissive tone.
As Web was getting ready to step into his car and radio Sheriff Walford, a boy of about thirteen years-of-age approached his car. The boy was wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt that had seen its better days. His hair was cut short and he had a somewhat apprehensive look on his face. Web had worked with enough young people in his career that he could tell, just by his appearance, that this boy was a decent kid. “You lookin’ for me, Mister?” he shouted to Web.
“You the boy that found the skull?” Web asked.
“Yeah, me and another kid. Name’s Robert but they call me Bear. Ma said you wanted me to show you where we found Mr. Skull. It ain’t far from here.”
“That’s right, Bear, if you don’t mind. Hop in the car, over on the other side, and we’ll go have a look-see.”
Web liked the boy right off. He just seemed like a nice friendly kid. When he noticed that Bear was staring at the Browning 12-gauge shotgun, mounted to the floor hump between the driver and passenger seat, he asked him, “You know much about guns?”
“Shot my grandpa’s 20-gauge once,” Bear replied. “Put me right on my ass. Bet that one’s got a bigger kick than that 20gauge.”
“Yea, you’ll feel it when you shoot her,” Web agreed. “And you probably should learn to say rear-end instead of that word you just used.”
“You mean ass?” Bear grinned.
Say, how’d you get the nick-name of Bear, anyhow?” Web enquired to change the subject. “You like bears?”
“Nah, there were three other Roberts in my class at school. Teacher insisted we each use different names so one of em got to keep the name Robert, one of em got to be called Rob and one was Bob. She couldn’t figure out what to call me ‘till some girl suggested Ro-bear, like the French would pronounce Robert. Well it got shortened to Bear purty quick. Everybody’s been callin’ me that for so long, I sometimes almost forget my real name is Robert. What do they call you?”
“I’m Web, Chief Deputy Web Gage. Pleased to meet ya, Bear.”
The old Graney Bridge spans the North Raccoon River south of Perry. The wrought iron bridge with overhead trusses is typical of bridges constructed before the turn of the century. As they approached it, Web glanced in the mirror and noticed the white van, with the reporter and cameraman, was close behind.
“Pull off to the side just ‘fore you get to the bridge,” Bear instructed. “Hope you don’t mind walkin’ through some brush and cow-pasture.”
“I think I can handle it,” Web replied, watching in the rearview mirror as Sonia, dressed in her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes, climbed out of the van. “This ought to be interesting,” he whispered to himself.
“This way,” Bear yelled as he crawled through the rusty barbed wire fence at the bottom of the road ditch. Web followed, lifting the top strand of wire as he ducked down and threw his leg through the opening and then quickly followed with the rest of his body. Once on the other side of the fence, he tried to ignore the two reporters, but couldn’t help glancing back up at the road. To his surprise, Sonia had slipped a pair of flats on her feet and was making her way down the steep road ditch to the fence crossing, with Kyle and his ever-present camera close behind.
The sun was almost directly overhead as the mercury rose to a comfortable 75 degrees. The air was heavy with the smell of nearby hogs and cattle. There was only the slight outline of a path through the brome grass and scrub brush that thrived along the river bottoms. The riverbank, at this point, was only about four to five feet high and did little to contain the Raccoon River during times of high water and spring floods. The ground felt spongy and soft, even though it had been only a moderately wet summer.
Web had always tried to stay fit but had put on a few extra pounds lately, something he was now regretting as he struggled to keep up with the boy. The shorter brome grass was giving way to taller Jimsonweed and Foxtail, making it even more difficult. “Slow down a bit, Bear. I ain’t as young as you, ya know,” Web yelled.
“It’s just over here a ways, Web,” Bear yelled back from somewhere in the tall weeds.
Web finally caught up with Bear at a place where a small creek drained into the river creating a cut in the bank. Bear pointed to a spot where, over time, the river had washed the roots from a large tree, and it had toppled onto the bank. All that remained was enough of the tree trunk to form a perilous bridge down to a sand bar along the river. Bear jumped onto the rotted old trunk and, spreading his arms for balance, walked confidently down to the narrow sand bar, yelling “C’mon down, Web. We’re ’bout there.”
Web looked at the slippery log and then down at his usually spit-shined Wellingtons, now covered with mud and streaks of green from the weeds. “Oh shit,” he murmured to himself. Looking down at Bear, he asked “This the only way down there?”
“You can make it. It’s easy” Bear yelled back.
Web heard the tall weeds rustling behind him as Sonia stepped into the small clearing. Her carefully combed and lacquered blonde hair was now hanging down the sides of her face and neck. It was dotted with green and black weed pods and brown leaves. Her clothes were disheveled, and mud splattered. Kyle was close behind her, carrying his camera and trying to film the scene.
“That was a fun walk,” Sonia smiled, brushing a horsefly from in front of her face. “We ’bout there?”
Web turned and looked at Sonia. For the first time, he noticed how pretty she was. He also noticed he was starting to dislike her less, perhaps even starting to like her a bit. Maybe she wasn’t the snooty big-city gal he first thought she was. “Boy says we gotta follow him down that slippery old elm log,” Web said, no longer trying to separate Sonia and Kyle from his own work. “I’ll go first, and then your cameraman and I can help you down.”
“I’ll be fine,” Sonia shot back. “You go ahead, and we’ll follow.”
Web stepped out on the log and slowly moved his feet down the rotting wood, trying to maintain his balance. He was almost to the bottom when he hit a slick spot where some weeds had grown over the log. His feet suddenly flew out from under him, and he landed squarely on his butt at the bottom of the log. Feeling a little embarrassed, as he lay there flat on his back, Web looked up at Sonia, who was doing her best to keep from laughing, and shouted, “See, nothing to it.”
“Was that your rear-end or your ass you fell on?” Bear laughingly asked.
“Maybe I will let you help me after all,” Sonia reconsidered, as Web struggled to his feet.
When they had all made it down to the narrow sand bar along the river, Bear motioned them on. “Come on. It’s just over here.”
The river normally flowed bank to bank at this point but, after a dry August and September, its waters were now narrow enough to leave space to walk between the water and the bank.
“Right here,” Bear yelled, pointing to a spot where the river had, at some earlier time, cut back into the bank and left a sort of long sloping cave. “It was right back in there. We was looking for arrowheads back there when we found it.”
Web knelt down and looked back into the cave-like undercut, which appeared to be about fifteen feet deep. “Show me just where you found it,” he instructed Bear, who was wiggling like a snake into the opening.
“Right here,” he said, slapping a spot at the deepest part of the cut bank. “It looked like a white rock. There was only a little of it sticking out of the dirt when I first saw it. Then I began digging and there it was.”
“Did you find anything else when you were digging around back there?”
“Nope,” Bear replied. “Just the skull. How do you reckon he got there?”
“We’ll probably never know that” Web replied. He hadn’t noticed Kyle filming Sonia as she spoke in front of the cut bank while he and the boy were looking at the place where the skull was found. Kyle was now on his knees aiming the camera back into the spot that Bear had pointed out.
“Is there enough light back there?” Web asked, remembering he had forgotten to bring his own camera. “Say, would you be able to make some stills from your film and get them to me. I forgot my camera and I don’t relish havin’ to trudge all the way back here to get pictures.”
“No problem,” Kyle replied. “You know this spot needs to be carefully excavated by someone that knows what to look for and how to look for it.”
“I ’spose you’re right, but I doubt the sheriff will want to spend the money on that, unless it can be tied to a documented cold case. If it’s an Indian skull, the county has a conservation commission that would probably explore the sight.”
“Oh, it’s not an Indian skull. You can be sure of that. And it’s not that old either. I’d guess maybe fifty years. I’d love to excavate the sight for any other clues, if you’d allow me.”
“I doubt the sheriff would want just anybody diggin’ around a potential crime scene, so I’d just as soon you hang onto your shovel for now,” Web replied.
“I’m just a few credits away from graduating with a degree in archeology,” Kyle offered. “I know what to look for if you need any help.”
“Thanks. I’ll let you know,” Web answered, dismissively.
When they finally made it back to the road, Web felt exhausted. I gotta get back in shape, he reminded himself. It didn’t help his ego any when he noticed that Sonia didn’t even appear tired from the walk. He hadn’t realized it, and wouldn’t admit it, but he had sorta hoped she would need some assistance on the return walk. And why had he wondered if she was married or not? Why had he checked her finger for a ring, while making sure no one noticed? What difference could it possibly make? She was a big-time television reporter, and probably had a big-shot boyfriend back in Des Moines.
“How you doin, Ma’am?” Web asked politely.
“Don’t call me Ma’am. I ain’t no Ma’am,” Sonia replied with a slight smile. “I’m doin’ just fine. I’m a farm-girl at heart, and I can still make my way through a cow pasture without steppin’ in shit.”
“Farm-girl, eh?” Web replied, somewhat surprised. “Where’d you grow up?”
“Cattle and hog farm south of Creston,” Sonia answered as she scraped the mud off her shoes with a stick. “What happens now with the skull? You going to have it analyzed?”
“Probably send it to the DCI lab in Ankeny. Depends on what they have to say, whether we pursue it any further or not. Check with me in a couple weeks. I should have some answers then.”
“Would you call me if you find out anything sooner?” Sonia asked as she handed Web her business card. “I’ll probably go with what I’ve got on tonight’s newscast, if there’s time for it. Then I’ll do a follow-up report when we get some more answers.”
“Sure thing,” Web smiled, tucking the card into his shirt pocket.
On the drive back to Perry, Web couldn’t stop thinking about Sonia. He wasn’t even aware he was doing it, as he put his hand on the pocket that contained the card with her number on it and felt to make sure it was still there. “You kinda like that woman, don’t cha?” Bear asked, watching Web quickly move his hand away from his pocket.
“I try to kinda like everybody,” Web replied. “Why do you say that?”
“I think she kinda likes you, too,” Bear replied.
“Oh, you think so?” Web asked, as a slight smile formed on his face. “And how do you know so much about these things?”
“I don’t, really. I’m just a kid,” Bear shot back with a grin on his freckled face.
“You boys still heckle the night watchman when he makes his rounds?” Web asked. “We used to give him fits when I was a boy.”
“You lived in Perry?” Bear asked.
“Yeah,” Web replied. “Lived right downtown in an apartment on Warford Street. My mother worked there for many years.”
“What about your pa?” Bear asked.
“Never knew my pa. What say I buy you lunch before I head back?” Web offered as he turned the cruiser into the Maid-Rite parking lot.
“Can we bring Mr. Skull in with us and set him on the table?” Bear asked, a devilish grin on his face.
A few whispy white clouds floated around the afternoon sky and the temperature was around 78 degrees, as Web left Perry and headed south on Highway 169. It was one of those fall days that Iowans look forward to as they endure the 90 plus temperature and almost equal humidity of August. Web took his time returning to Adel. It was close to two o’clock when he pulled into the “Official Cars Only” parking area. Sheriff Walford was standing at the rear entrance to the jail smoking a King Edward cigar. The Sheriff’s office had recently gone no smoking, forcing Sheriff Walford outside to enjoy his usual afternoon King Edward.
“What did you find?” Walford asked as Web stepped out of his car. “Have any trouble getting the skull away from Chief Haynes?”
Web recounted his morning for the sheriff, only briefly mentioning that WHO-TV had sent a reporter to cover the story.
“Well, go on in and write out your report,” the sheriff instructed. “Then I want you to run that skull down to the DCI in Ankeny. Can’t do much more till we get a report from them. I still think it’s just some ancient human, like an Indian or somethin’. Probably end up bein’ a big waste a time.”
That night, Web made it a point to watch the evening news on Channel 13. He was disappointed to see only a very brief mention of the skull and the only camera shots were of the skull and Chief Haynes. Now, all he could do was wait anxiously for the results from the Division of Criminal Investigation Crime Lab. Not only was he anxious to solve the mystery, but it would also give him a reason to phone Sonia.
Two weeks after sending the skull to the lab, and another Thursday morning, they finally got the results. Web had just left the Redfield Café and was headed towards Adel on Highway 6 when Sheriff Walford radioed him. “You got time to come into the office?” Walford asked. “Fella from the DCI is here with that skull. Thought you might want to talk to him.”
“I’m just west of town right now,” Web replied. “Be right there.”
Felix Hunt had spent the better part of his career with the DCI. He was well-known by most of the 99 county sheriffs in Iowa. Hunt had worked with Sheriff Walford on several cases in the past, most notably, the murder of Dick Yeager at the Try-Angle Inn near Adel. Felix was a meticulous dresser, preferring pinstriped suits, white shirts and conservative ties. With his thin mustache and dark hair, he could, just as easily pass for a gangster as an officer of the law. Felix and Sheriff Walford were sitting in the sheriff’s office when Web arrived. They had been engaged in a lively discussion of one of Felix’s favorite subjects, University of Iowa football. “Come on in, Web,” Sheriff Walford shouted. “Felix was kind enough to bring our skull back, along with the results of their analysis. Here’s the report.”
“I was on my way to Harlan anyhow, so I thought I’d drop this off and save you a trip,” Felix added. “Not much to go on, but without the rest of the body, it’s about all we can do.”
Web sat in the big leather chair in the corner of the office and began studying the report. The first thing he noticed was the line “Probable date of death, 1930 to 1940.”
After seeing the timeframe, Web looked over at the sheriff. “Well Lem, looks like we need to do a little more investigating. This ain’t as old a skull as we thought.”
“Yeah,” Sheriff Walford replied. “Check the records for missing persons, in that time frame, that might fit with our skull. It won’t be easy, ’cause that time frame puts it in the middle of the Great Depression and there were lots of people gone missing then. Most just jumped a freight train and headed off for who knows where. Don’t spend a lot a time and resources on it ’cause we got a lot more important things to do around here.”
“What about excavating the sight?” Web asked, without looking up from the report.
“Only ones in the county that might want to do it is the conservation people, and since it ain’t that old, I doubt they would be interested. One thing’s sure, we ain’t gonna spend any money on an excavation unless you find something pretty damn intrestin’ ’bout that skull.”
There wasn’t much more to go on in the rest of the report. Estimated age of the person was between 20 and 45, male, Caucasian and no significant clues as to cause of death. There was no indication the head had been severed from the rest of the body and no matching dental records were found.
Web decided he would go across the street to the courthouse and search the records of missing persons to see how many possibilities there were. As he started across the weathered brick street towards the beautiful old courthouse that adorned the center of town, he remembered the card he still carried in his shirt-pocket. Reaching the other side of the street, he headed for the phone-booth on the southwest corner instead of the large double-doors of the historic old courthouse. The phone clinked as the dime dropped in the slot and he dialed the number on the card. Thinking it would probably be a long shot that he would reach her this time of day, he was surprised when the cheerful female voice at the other end of the line said, “I’ll put you right through.”
“Hello, this is Sonia Cummins. How may I help you?”
“Sonia, this is Dallas County Chief Deputy Web Gage. Remember me?”
“Sure do. How are you, Web? Been traipsing through any cow pastures lately?”
“Not since I fell on my ass on that log. Got some information on the skull that I promised I’d let you in on.”
“Nice to see you’re a man of your word,” Sonia laughed. “I was worried I’d never hear from you again.”
Web couldn’t help but smile when he heard the words “worried I’d never hear from you again.” He filled Sonia in on what he had learned and his plans to research missing persons. “If nothing interesting turns up that can be easily connected to the skull, it’s probably the end of the story. County won’t pay for an excavation and the sheriff’s got more important things on his plate.”
“Like an election?” Sonia added with a laugh. “Hey, you remember when Kyle offered to dig-up the sight. Maybe you should take him up on it, now that we know the county isn’t interested.”
“Yeah, I might just do that. How do I get ahold of him?”
“I’ll handle that,” Sonia offered. “Can you be free around five o’clock? I’ll be with Kyle out at that old mansion on Hickman that they used to use as a prison farm. We’re doing a photo-shoot. Should be done around five.”
“Yeah, the Flynn mansion,” Web replied. “How ’bout we meet at that little coffee shop across Hickman Avenue from the Old Flynn Mansion. You know where that’s at?”
“Sure do,” Sonia replied. “See ya there, Chief Deputy Gage.”
Web was happy to see the same white WHO-TV van sitting outside the coffee shop when he arrived. He could see Sonia and Kyle through the window, sitting at a corner booth, as he parked his car. Sonia noticed him as he walked through the door and stood up and waved. “Over here, Deputy.”
Web sat by Kyle, who was anxious to talk about excavating the sight. “It will be great practice for me,” he told them. “I’m going to treat it just like an ancient Indian burial ground.”
“I’ll clear it with the land-owner tomorrow,” Web said. “I know him, and I’m sure there will be no problem. He’ll probably be right there in your way the whole time.”
“Great,” Kyle replied. “I’ll go out this week-end and see what I can dig up. I hate to break up this little gathering, but I got to be getting’ home. I’ve got a hot date tonight and I might even shave my face for her,” Kyle said as he stood up.
“She must really be special,” Sonia teased. “I’d sure like to sit here and talk some more about this case but I’m riding with him so I……….”
“If you don’t mind riding in a cop-car, I’d be happy to take you home,” Web offered. “I might even splurge for supper, if you’re hungry.”
Web wasn’t sure why he had added that last part. It just sorta came out. If he had thought about it, he would have convinced himself he was moving too fast and he really didn’t know enough about this woman to be asking her to supper. Now she’ll probably think that I’m being too forward.
“Are you asking me to supper, Chief Deputy?” Sonia asked with a sly smile on her face.
“Well, I just thought…….”
“I accept,” Sonia quickly added, cutting him off before he could finish his sentence. “And I know just the place. How do you feel about chili-dogs?”
“Love em! If I were a condemned man, chili dogs would be what I would request for my last meal,” Web joked, relieved at the casual manner in which Sonia had accepted his offer. “I assume you are talking about George the Chili King Diner and Drive In?”
“Of course,” Sonia replied. “What better place to discuss skulls and falling on your butt on a log than over one of George’s famous chili-dogs?”
George the Chili King Restaurant was almost a landmark on Des Moines’ west side. The classic style diner and drive-in had first dished up its chili dogs, hamburgers and root beer floats in 1952. The dining area, for those that preferred to get out of their cars and come inside, was small and cramped. Most diners preferred to park in one of the spots on the huge paved parking lot and have their food served on a tray by one of George’s teeny-bopper carhops.
They were fortunate to get one of the small tables with two chairs at George’s, rather than having to sit at the counter on one of the red vinyl-covered stools. After getting better acquainted while munching on their chili dogs and sipping their Cokes, Sonia asked, “So, did your research uncover any suspects?”
Sonia had worked hard to get into the news business. Her dream, since she was in high school, was to do live television. Graduating from Iowa State University with a degree in broadcast journalism, she first worked for her hometown radio station, KSIB in Creston, a city of 9,000 population 75 miles south of Des Moines. While working there she married her high school sweetheart, Rod Cummins, a young farmer and cattleman. After that, her loyal listeners tuned in to hear her news and weather segments under the name of Sonia Cummins instead of Sonia Benning.
When a resignation at KSO Radio in Des Moines created an opening for a weather reporter, Sonia applied for the job. Her resume made it to the top of the stack, and she was offered the job. She eagerly accepted and moved to a small apartment in the big city of Des Moines, coming home to Creston on weekends. Her hard work and dedication, at KSO Radio soon led to a job offer from WHO-TV to do the noon weather. Finally, here was her chance to do live television.
With Rod pursuing his dream of being a farmer, and Sonia’s career taking her in a different direction, the marriage suffered. After five years, they divorced amicably and remained friends.
The management at WHO, and the viewers, liked what they saw on the screen every noon. Sonia was given an occasional local interest fluff-piece for the five o’clock news and proved to be a talented TV personality. In less than a year, she was promoted to a full-time on-air reporter.
“No real possibilities,” Web replied. “It was a different time, the 30’s. The country was in a depression and people were on the move. A man would come into a place, stay a while and then hop a freight for somewhere else. Nobody kept track of them, or really cared. I kinda feel like I’m wasting my time on this. I know that Lem won’t let me pursue it, unless I have some pretty good evidence of who the skull man was, and I can’t get any evidence without doing a lot of pursuing. It’s the old catch-22.”
“How about we dig into it on our own?” Sonia offered. “I’ve got a few connections we could tap for information and Kyle is anxious to help. His archeological training will come in handy. I think it could be fun. And I just might get a good story for the six o’clock news. Watta ya say, Deputy?”
Sonia’s offer to work with him on the skull mystery took Web by surprise. He had been only mildly interested in the case and considered it a distraction from his serious police work. But now he was starting to see the possibilities. “I s’pose we could do a little digging on our own,” Web replied, trying to hold back his eagerness. “When do you want to start?”
“I thought we already had,” Sonia replied, giving Web a look that he hoped meant they had started more than just a search for answers in the skull case. “Now you did promise to take me home.”
“I’m a man of my word,” Web assured her as he picked up the check and headed towards the cash register in the corner.
“What will the neighbors think when they see a cop car bringing me home?” Sonia mused as they pulled up in front of her little Beaver Avenue house on Des Moines’ west side. Sonia had recently rented the little two-bedroom Tudor style house after living in an apartment on Grand Ave. in downtown Des Moines for the last two years.
“Shall I cuff you so they can watch me remove them when you get out of the car?” Web joked.
“So, when do you want to continue with our little investigation?” Sonia asked.
“How about we meet at my place next Friday evening? I have an acreage just west of Adel. It’s not hard to find. I might even hose the place out and find some road-kill to barbeque for supper.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Sonia laughed. “Try to find a really ripe ’possum, if you can. I hear they’re great this time of year.”
“I’ll do my best,” Web laughed. “Here, let me give you the directions. Do you own a car?”
“What have I gotten myself into?” Web whispered to himself as he pulled into the driveway of his small acreage. Sure, he had been fascinated by this pretty reporter from the time he first saw her at the police station in Perry. But now that she also seemed to be interested in him, he was a just a little unsure of himself. After all, it had been many years since he had dated a woman.
Web had been married to his first wife, Mary, for almost thirteen years. A hairdresser at the Redfield Hair Salon, they had met shortly after Web became police chief of the town. The hours that a policeman in a small town is required to work do not make for a happy family life, however. Mary grew tired of being alone almost every night and having to do much of the child rearing by herself. Their divorce was amicable, and they remained friends.
Web had purchased the old farmhouse and ten acres after his divorce and had spent much of his spare time renovating and modernizing the old house. He had also done a lot of landscaping on the property and built a new two-car garage that housed his police cruiser on one side and his trusty old green 1976 Ford F-100 pickup truck on the other. Web was proud of the place and what he had accomplished on his own. His housekeeping skills, however, were only slightly better than his cooking skills, which were marginal at best. S’pose she would catch me if I had Maren, over at the Three-Corner Inn, prepare a couple chicken dinners and I acted like I fixed it? Web thought to himself.
The following Friday evening, Web finished setting the table and stood back and admired his work. I think I’m ready, he told himself. Glancing at the clock, he saw that it wasn’t even six-thirty, a half hour before the time Sonia was to be there.
Grabbing a Coke out of the refrigerator, he stepped out on the front porch and sat in his favorite outdoor rocking chair. The autumn sky was already filled with stars and a chill was creeping into the air. Not the bite of wintry blusters, but just a nip to let him know a new season was at hand. The earthly fragrance of fall reminded him that winter winds would soon be blowing across the fields of corn stubble.
It was almost seven when Sonia’s red ’67 Mustang convertible, followed by a cloud of white dust, turned into the drive. “She’s right on time,” he whispered.
The meal went well, with Sonia heaping lots of praise on Web’s cooking skills, praise that should have gone to Maren Goodard. After they finished the meal and cleared the kitchen table, Sonia was eager to get to the purpose of their meeting. She suggested they go over the clues they had so far, and then do a little brainstorming. “What did Kyle find?” Web asked as he sipped his coffee.
“Nothing yet. Or at least nothing he was ready to tell me. He said he was going back out tomorrow to do some more sifting of the dirt and some more digging in another area.”
After more discussion and a few new ideas, Sonia made an excuse about being tired and got up to leave. “Next time we’ll meet at my house,” She offered as she put on her coat. “I probably can’t hold a candle to you in the cooking department, but I do make a pretty good chili-dog.”
“About that supper that we just enjoyed….” Web had been feeling guilty about his deception and decided to fess up.
“My compliments to the chef at the Three-Corner Inn,” Sonia interrupted. A surprised look came over Web’s face. “Remember, I’m an investigative reporter,” she added with a sly smile.
Over the next few weeks, Sonia and Web continued to meet under the guise of solving the skull mystery, which had now become just that, a guise. Neither was quite ready, however, to admit that they were developing feelings for each other or to explore where their relationship was heading. It was easier just to use the skull mystery as their reason for being together, and not make any further commitments at this time. They had both been divorced and, although they had moved on, there was still those lingering effects of a failed marriage. Web still felt those feelings of self-doubt and guardedness that often remained long after the divorce. And Sonia sometimes felt she had solely been responsible for the split and wasn’t sure if she could, or even should, ever love another man.
The mystery of the skull was quickly coming to a dead-end. With no further information uncovered, it seemed there was nothing more to pursue. That was, until one night later that November.
This time it was Sonia who called Web. “I’ve got something Kyle sent from his diggings,” Sonia exclaimed. “He said he’s sure you’ll want to see it.”
“Great,” Web replied. “You want to meet at your place or out here?”
“I’ll drive out to Adel,” Sonia offered. “It’s a nice night for a drive in the country. I’ll be there around seven.”
The cooler temperatures of fall had finally arrived, and there was a chill in the air. Web was anxious to use the fireplace he had rebuilt in the parlor of the old farmhouse, and this seemed like a good night to do just that. As soon as he got home, he quickly changed out of his uniform, into jeans and a sweater, and grabbed his chainsaw. By seven o’clock, he had a nice warm glowing fire going and was eagerly anticipating Sonia’s arrival, and a romantic evening. Up to now, they had only flirted and teased, doing the dance of early romance. Web was ready to take their relationship to the next level, and he was sure that Sonia was too. When Sonia arrived, Web suggested they have some coffee and warm themselves by the fire before discussing the skull case and whatever Kyle had unearthed. “Why Mr. Gage,” Sonia smiled. “Are you planning to get fresh with me, with this fire in the fireplace and all?”
“Sure am,” Web laughingly replied. “Sit down over here and enjoy the fire while I put some music on and ……………” A loud knock at the front door interrupted Web at the worst possible time. Uh-oh, there goes my evening, Web thought. Must be an emergency somewhere. Why didn’t they just call instead of sending someone out for me?
Web opened the door, expecting to find one of his fellow deputies. Instead, in the dim light of the porch lamp, he saw an older man with unruly hair in need of a trim, and a scruffy beard, wearing a red wool plaid jacket and a Pioneer Seed Corn ballcap. At first, Web didn’t recognize him, but, as his eyes adjusted, he could see it was a man he had only met a time or two, Hooly. Hooly never used his last name and, if anyone knew what it was, they had long ago forgotten it.
Every small town in Iowa seemed to have a Hooly. Hooly was a retired farmhand in his late 70’s or maybe even 80’s, who lived alone and had no family. He stayed in a tiny three-room apartment, that he rented from Mrs. Jaynes, on the upper floor of a large older three-story home on Main Street. Nobody in town, not even old Mrs. Jaynes, the widow of an insurance man and former mayor of the town, knew much about Hooly. The older residents recalled that he had worked for the Chambers family farms, south of town, for as long as they could remember. He had been reluctant to retire, but his age and the fact that mechanization had left farmhands pretty-much obsolete, forced him to hang up his leather gloves and straw hat a few years back. He would have been more than welcome to stay on the farm with the Chambers family and live out his remaining years, but after Gus Chambers’ passed on, he decided to move to town. “Can’t stay out here and see all the work going on and not be a part of it,” he explained.
It was about that same time that Lorain Chambers moved into Horse & Buggy Nursing Home on the outskirts of town. She had undergone heart surgery to repair a heart valve and required a part time nurse’s care. Her family felt that, with the help of the part time nurse, they could care for her at home, but she insisted on moving to the nursing home. “I don’t want to be a burden to you kids. And besides, I’ll be with people my age for a change,” she assured them. “I’ve missed out on a lot a visiting, stuck out here on this farm all those years.”
Hooly kept pretty much to himself when he first moved to town. But, after some time, his life devolved into a few daily rituals. He would have brunch with Mrs. Jaynes, usually coffee and a sweet roll, around noon every day. After that, he would walk downtown to Huffy’s Tavern on the south side of the historic old town square. The patrons of Huffy’s never paid much attention to Hooly. He would sit on a barstool and quietly sip his one cold mug of Hamm’s beer that he allowed himself, then just seemingly disappear into the woodwork. He generally avoided joining in any of the lively conversations that the brick-yard laborers and farmers who hung out at Huffy’s, engaged in. Hooly seldom shared his opinions, if he even had any, on politics or any other important matters of the day. On most afternoons, unless there was a blizzard or blistering heat wave, Hooly would walk down to Riverside Park and visit with the fishermen along the banks of the Raccoon River. The last thing on Hooly’s daily routine was his visit to Horse & Buggy Nursing Home. He would show up right after supper and play cards, watch television and talk with the residents. He loved to just sit and talk about farming and the good old days. And Hooly always made time to visit with two ladies in particular.
“That you, Hooly?” Web asked, surprised to find who it was at his door. “What brings you out on this night? How’d you get here? Did you walk?”
“Weren’t far,” Hooly replied. “Don’t mind walkin’. Keeps me limbered up. Hear tell you found yourself a skull a while back.”
“Come on in, Mr. Hooly,” Web said, holding the door open.
“I ain’t no mister,” Hooly gruffly replied as he stepped through the door. “Never have been, neither. I’m here to talk to ya ’bout that skull. I reckon you ain’t got a clue who it might have belonged to.”
“That’s about right,” Web admitted. “Come on in. I want you to meet somebody who has been helping me on the case. We were just getting ready to discuss our latest findings. Right this way.”
Web ushered the old man into the parlor and introduced him to Sonia, adding “Hooly says he has some information that might help us solve the case. Have a seat, Hooly.”
“Said no such thing,” Hooly shot back. “I just got some things I been wantin’ ta get off my chest for a long time now, and with you havin’ a spare skull around and not knowin’ nuthin’ ‘bout it, I figgered you might want to hear my story. Might not have nuthin’ to do with your skull, but then again, it just might. Ain’t my problem, anyhow.”
“Well, by all means, tell us what you know,” Web said, encouraging the old man to continue. “We’re getting nowhere with the case, so any help you could give us would be appreciated.”
Web had hopes for something more romantic than listening to an old man’s stories. He had turned off all the lights in the parlor, except for the dim lamp in the corner. The flames in the fireplace were dancing brightly, making the room seem both warm and somewhat ghostly at the same time.
Hooly took in the scene before sliding into the big lounge-chair facing the couch, a slight toothless grin on his face as he realized what he had interrupted. “You two just sit there on that couch,” Hooly said. “I’ll talk, and you listen, and if you get done ’fore I do, you just let me know. No need to turn no lights on. I like it just fine like this.”