By Marti Talbott
At eighteen, Tiffany Clark soon discovered that driving across the United States was more expensive than she expected. Worse still, she only made it to a small town in Iowa before her car broke down. Nearly out of money, she hoped to find a temporary job, get her car fixed, and then move on. That was before she met a handsome mechanic and found herself caught up in the town’s shocking and scandalous unsolved mystery.
Release date – May 28th, 2017
Earl Woodbury had not spoken to anyone in nearly eighteen years, and there wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t understand why.
He lived in the mansion on the hill with a view of the town, the lake, and a vast patchwork of Iowa fields in various stages of spring planting. Even so, he was seldom home. Instead, he preferred to leave early in the morning, walk down the hill to town, and then walk back when the sun began to go down. The only exception to his self-imposed schedule was bad weather, but that was not a problem on this sunny day in mid-May. In his sixties, Earl liked to wear beat-up cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, and a yellowing cowboy hat, which made him stand out like a sore thumb in his small town. Nevertheless, everyone liked old Earl, even if they couldn’t get a smile or a nod, let alone a word out of him.
Sometimes he took a stroll up and down Main Street, but more often than not he sat on a bench across the street from the town’s city hall, watching the people or reading the daily newspaper. Occasionally a dog came to greet him, causing Earl to display one of his rare smiles. Other than that, he wore no discernable facial expression at all. At lunch time, he waited for the usual crowd to dissipate before he got up, walked across the street and picked up his fish sandwich, complete with a generous helping of tartar sauce. He never paid for it. Instead, the restaurant sent a bill to Earl’s attorney each month, who in turn added a generous tip and sent a check.
Indeed, everyone knew why Earl didn’t speak – that is, until the sheriff hired a new deputy.
Founded in the mid-1800s, Blue Falls, Iowa was a peaceful place for the most part. Located in the lower half of the state, the climate was surprisingly mild with the lows in the 40s and the highs in the 80s, plus a brief period in the 100s. Farmers worked the cleared land and happily enjoyed the lakes, woods, rolling hills, and a few more inches of rainfall than Iowans were privileged to in the north.
The same as any other town that saw a boom of early settlers, older buildings with shared walls marked the center of town and lined both sides of Main Street. The Wells Fargo office and adjoining corrals that once sat at the end of Main Street, were converted to the town’s only bank, which was eventually joined by City Hall and a fast food restaurant. City Hall also served as the courthouse, the jail, the police station, and the Sheriff’s Office, with a large room on the third floor used for town hall meetings. Next door was a large clothing store followed by various small and large shops, and in between was a small park with a pleasant fountain in which children were allowed to play on particularly hot summer days.
On Earl’s side of the street were still more assorted shops including an aging but well-kept hotel, a full service restaurant, and a beauty/barber shop. Owned by the luckiest man in town, the last building on Earl’s side of Main Street was a garage that offered car repair, parts, and a towing service. In the opposite direction, and less than two miles out of town, was the Woodbury Ceramic Tile Company owned by Earl Woodbury and managed by his oldest son, Michael.
For years, the highway went right through town and netted the community a great deal of business. Unfortunately, when the state built a four-lane Interstate, it bypassed the town completely. The population dwindled from not quite 20,000 to less than 10,000 and eventually, Main Street turned into two lanes with right angle parking on both sides – that was before the mayor came up with a brilliant idea. He suggested they offer ten acres of county land at a discounted price to anyone willing to establish a business in the community. Furthermore, no city or county property taxes would be collected on the land for the first ten years. It was a sweet deal and several companies took the mayor up on his offer. Since most of the businesses came with employees, the town experienced a massive population explosion, which required housing developments, a new addition to the hospital, a shopping mall, a new school, and bigger profits for local businesses.
Everyone was thrilled – except Michael Woodbury. Michael was quite possibly the most handsome man in town. He was tall, kept in good physical shape, had wavy brown hair with a touch of distinguishing gray on each sideburn, and had the kind of captivating blue eyes most did not wish to look directly into for very long. Soon, a used car lot, a condo high-rise, a shopping center, three real-estate offices, two jewelry stores, and the branch of a national shipping company sprang up between the town and the Woodbury Tile Company.
Instead of welcoming the progress, Michael complained about the noise, the dust coming from dirt roads that had not yet been paved, and the way heavy equipment always seemed to be parked right behind his car at quitting time.
A construction lull offered less than a month of peace and quiet before Terrell Office Supply Company bought the land between Interstate 80 and the Woodbury Company. Jerry Terrell built a two-story warehouse with an enviable state-of-the-art packing system, and added a small shop in front to sell products to the locals. Michael grumbled and groaned about the noise and the dust to anyone who would listen, but he held his temper in check.
At last, Terrell Office Supply Company was finished and everyone relaxed.
Yet, there remained one glaring problem. The height of the Terrell building made it impossible for anyone to see Michael’s roof-mounted billboard from the Interstate. Hopping mad, Michael was forced to raise the billboard up another fifty feet. That was an end to it, or so everyone thought, until Terrell employees began to park in the Woodbury parking lot.
Michael had had enough and the fight was on!
Next came an application from a company specializing in prefabricated houses. Naturally, the town voted to pay the expense of establishing freeway on and off ramps that could support the weight of fully loaded semi-trucks. It was worth it, they all agreed at a town hall meeting. After all, the community was growing, business was booming, and everyone who wanted one had a job.
To Michael it meant more noise, more dirt, more people parking in his parking lot, and his modest trucks having to wait in line to get on the Interstate.
Michael stormed out never to attend a town hall meeting again.
As the town grew, so did the Sheriff’s office.
Rod Keller had his own reasons for choosing to live in a small town rather than the big city. A cop in his late twenties with six solid years of experience, he soon got tired of chasing and capturing criminals just to have the lily-livered judges set them free. His collars averaged six-to-one when it came to convictions, but it was that one – a guilty as sin baby killer that really galled him.
Therefore, he secured a position as Deputy Sheriff for the county of Lowland, Iowa and proudly wore the standard issue uniform. It consisted of dark brown pants, a tan shirt, a slender brown tie, a gold sheriff deputy badge with blue lettering, a gold insignia on each of his collar lapels, and a brown hat. Being the new guy, he inherited the evening shift which pleased him. He expected the dull and boring graveyard shift, but one of the other deputies had worked it for years and liked it that way. Rod’s shift started at 3:00 in the afternoon and ended at11:30. His duties included patrolling assigned areas, making arrests, responding to calls, and tending to accidents on Interstate 80. Everything else was handled by a police force that numbered five, not counting the Police Chief.
He did not know them well yet, but Rod liked his boss, Sheriff Otis Pierce, and the other two deputies, Wayne Griffin, and Victor Stonebrooke. With three full-time and three part-time deputies, the sheriff could stay in the office where he was needed most. The three shifts overlapped just enough for Rod to spend half an hour a day with each of the other two full-time deputies. Victor Stonebrooke, a married man with three young children, had the day shift. His specific duties included manning the school crosswalks, mornings and afternoons, at the newly built elementary school just outside the city limits.
Soon, they would be getting another new hire to take Deputy Wayne Griffin’s place on the graveyard shift. Unmarried and only a few weeks away from being old enough to retire, Wayne Griffin wore the same uniform with a few variations. He preferred an unbuttoned brown vest and off-white hat instead of a brown one. No one seemed to mind. Too old to chase a lot of bad guys, Wayne spent his nights checking on the welfare of various farmers and their families, many of whom were his friends. When the cows got out or something didn’t look just right, it was Wayne who notified an always grateful farmer. In his official capacity, Wayne also attended most of the teen functions such as school dances, sporting events, bonfires, and school picnics.
Rod had only been on the job three days when he noticed an old man sitting at a lakeside picnic table staring at the waterfall. It was the same old man he had seen resting on a bench across the street from city hall the day before, so he parked his car and went to see about him.
“You okay, old timer?” His question was met with a slight nod and nothing more. “I’m Rod Keller. What’s your name?” The old man ignored him completely. Rod gently asked a few more questions, received no replies, and by the way the old man was dressed, assumed he was homeless.
Therefore, Deputy Rod Keller arrested Earl Woodbury.
The grins on the faces of people who began to gather as Rod helped a cuffed Earl out of the back of his patrol car, did not worry the deputy, although he did think it a bit peculiar. Nevertheless, he ignored them and proudly took his very first arrest into the Sheriff’s office.
In the office entrance, a large pegboard held wanted posters, while the opposite wall displayed various certificates, awards and official licenses. In the corner of the room was a water cooler and a table that held paper cups, a coffee maker, stir sticks, and the usual assortment of condiments. Four wooden chairs with curved backs faced a counter, behind which a smirking uniformed woman worked. Rod ignored her too. Spread out on the counter were various clipboards, chained pens, and two computers, one of which peculiarly showed nothing more than the billboard mounted atop the Woodbury Ceramic Tile Company.
Rod knew the drill, told Earl to stay right where he was, and started to fill out the arrest log on the other computer.
“What’s this?” a shocked Sheriff Otis Pierce asked the moment he came out of his office and spotted handcuffs on Earl’s wrists.
Rod’s southern accent was a little more pronounced than usual when he answered, “Vagrancy. I found him sitting out by the lake.” The female dispatcher’s smirk turned to a giggle.
“Vagrancy?” the incredulous sheriff asked. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Take the cuffs off him.”
“But…” Rod tried. The demanding scowl on the sheriff’s face dictated that he do as he was told without hesitation, so Rod walked behind Earl, pulled out his key and removed the cuffs.
“You’re in trouble now,” the grinning dispatcher mumbled as she returned to her desk and pretended to be working on her computer.
The sheriff took hold of Earl’s elbow, helped him sit in a wooden chair that was so large it nearly swallowed Earl up, and didn’t let go until he was safely seated. “He hurt you?” Sheriff Pierce asked. He was relieved when Earl shook his head. “You’re losing weight again. Don’t your housekeeper feed you well enough?”
Earl simply shrugged.
“Oh, I get it, he can’t talk,” Rod muttered.
“No, you don’t get it,” said the still annoyed sheriff. “Earl Woodbury once owned half the town. He retired a few years ago and usually sits across the street from the courthouse so he can keep an eye on things.”
Rod bowed his head. “Sorry Sheriff, I didn’t know.”
Sheriff Pierce disregarded his new deputy’s comment. “Earl, you want him to take you back to the lake?” Earl shook his head so the sheriff asked, “The bench?” This time Earl nodded.
Deputy Rod Keller extended his hand and helped Earl stand up. “Mr. Woodbury, please accept my apology.” The old man didn’t nod or smile, which made the wrinkles in Rod’s forehead sink even deeper. He shot a slight glare at the giggling dispatcher, opened the door for Earl, and followed him out.
“Come right back,” said the sheriff. “We’ve got some talking to do before you go back out on the road.”
“Will do,” Rod answered.
Sheriff Otis Pierce glared at the looky-loos on the sidewalk in front of the office until they began to move along, and then watched the deputy walk Earl back across the street. Disgusted with himself, he again shook his head. “My fault, I should have warned the kid.” He was still watching when Earl sat down, and while the deputy waited until a car passed in front of him before he hurried back toward the office. Sheriff Pierce glanced at the still smiling dispatcher. “Well, you didn’t warn him either.”
“Not my job,” she grinned. Millie’s red hair and brown eyes perfectly matched her spunky personality. She was pretty, and slender, of average height, and had dimples in her cheeks. Millie stifled another laugh when the door opened and Rod walked back in. Even so, she was still grinning from ear-to-ear and watched his every move.
“Somebody want to let me in on the joke?” Rod asked.
“Pay no attention to Millie,” the sheriff answered as he led the way to his office in the back of the building. “Come in and sit down, son.”
“I’m in trouble?” Rod asked.
“No, but Millie will be if she doesn’t get back to work.” He chuckled at the traumatized look on her face, and then closed the door behind his deputy. “Mind you, Millie is as sharp as a tack and knows her job better than any dispatcher I’ve ever seen, but she gets a kick out of it when we screw up. In a way, I suppose we do a better job just to keep her from laughing at us.”
Sheriff Otis Pierce was a fastidious man who liked a place for everything and everything in its place. His desk was cleaned off except for a cup of coffee in an insulated plastic cup holder and the open file he had been working on. On the wall behind his desk hung various certificates, one of which was the coveted Officer Valor Award. He returned to his chair behind the desk and motioned for the deputy to sit down.
As he always did, Otis watched until Rod noticed a plaque next to the award. In big bold silver letters, the plaque held the number thirty-five. “The true award,” he explained. “Married to the best women in the world for thirty-five-years and every anniversary she brings in a new plaque just to remind how fortunate I am to have her.” As he hoped, his new hire finally smiled.
“Yep, four. All grown, all educated and all off seeking their own identity, or so they say until they run out of money.” He turned the picture of his sons and daughters around so Rod could get a good look at them. “My wife has been a little under the weather for a few days, but she’ll be bringing in the most fattening donuts she can find as soon as she’s feeling better.”
“I look forward to it.”
“Resist, son, do your best to resist or you’ll have a belly just like mine in less than a week.”
Rod drew in a relieved breath and relaxed. “Why wouldn’t Mr. Woodbury answer my questions?”
“Yeah, well, I suppose he has his reasons. One day he closed the door in my face and as far as I know, he hasn’t spoken since.”
“Not to anyone?”
“Oh, he lets his housekeeper know when he needs a doctor or the like, but as far as I know, he hasn’t said a word, not even to his sons or his grandchildren in years. Frankly, I don’t know what keeps the man from curling up in a ball and forgetting the world even exists.”
“I couldn’t have survived it.” Otis thoughtfully twirled an unsharpened pencil between his first two fingers. “Mr. Woodbury and his first wife had two sons who were in their early twenties when Mrs. Woodbury got cancer and died. Earl waited a couple of months and then remarried. His second marriage produced a little girl named Tiffany and the baby was about six months old when she was kidnapped.”
Rod’s eyes widened. “Kidnapped? By whom?”
“I wish I knew. I’ve got my suspicions, but I haven’t got one ounce of solid evidence to prove it. In a town as small as this was at the time, you know everybody, and Earl was a savvy businessman. Some say he was too harsh with his employees and some say he was not harsh enough. At any rate, the week before, Earl fired two men and a woman, and it could have been any one of those three, hell bent to get even – someone else or a complete stranger abduction. A day after the baby was taken, Earl got a call demanding a million-dollar ransom.”
“From a man or a woman?”
“He couldn’t tell. The voice sounded like it was electronically garbled. Whoever it was had his home phone number, which Earl changed often and kept unpublished. That was before everyone had cellphones.”
“Wow, so he just clammed up.”
“My fault probably,’ the sheriff admitted. “I kept trying to find the key, you know that one tiny tidbit that would blow the case wide open. I questioned him too often. He just didn’t have the key and without it I couldn’t wipe the pain out of that good man’s eyes.”
“Did you find a body?”
“Nope, no body and the whole town searched for miles around.”
“Then the baby might not be dead?”
Sheriff Otis Pierce laid the pencil down, lowered his gaze and stared at something unseen on the top of his desk. “Might have been kinder if we had found a body. How do you stop worrying about a baby that might still be alive, yet taking her last breath and you’re not there to save her? It was enough to bring me close to tears in those first few hours.”
“Can’t imagine what it did to Mr. Woodbury.”
Neither man spoke for a time until Rod asked, “But you did suspect someone?”
“Everyone at first. I still suspect Mariam Eggleston had something to do with it. She was the Woodbury’s housekeeper at the time, but it’s just a suspicion. Earl dropped the ransom off in a junkyard and that was the last we saw of that too.”
“Where is Mariam Eggleston now?”
“Oh, Mariam is still in town and as far as I can tell, she wasn’t the one who got the ransom. At least if she did, she hasn’t spent any of it.”
“Was the money marked?”
“Nope, that was part of the demand. The thing is, Earl never did think it was Mariam. He said it wasn’t in her nature to take baby Tiffany. He swore Mariam loved that little girl as much as he and his wife did. Maybe she did, but I just wasn’t convinced.” The sheriff paused before he added, “Something just didn’t add up with her.”
Rod shifted his weight in the hard, wooden chair and crossed his legs. “How long ago was this?”
“July 3, 1998. The town was full of people who normally came from miles around for the annual July 4th celebration. It’s a big deal around here.”
“I’d like to read the file, if…”
“It won’t do one bit of good to dig it all up again and you won’t find any answers in the file. I’m just telling you this so you’ll keep an eye out for Earl. He’s a good man who deserved a lot better in life than he got.”
“Is his second wife still living?”
“No. She drown her sorrow in pills, and Earl found her dead just two days after the kidnapping. It was ruled accidental.”
“Two days? Wow. Do you think it was accidental?” Rod asked.
“It looked more like suicide, but for Earl’s sake we said accidental. His daughter was gone, the money was gone and his wife was dead. You’d have done the same thing.”
“I probably would have. You notified the press about the kidnapping, I take it.”
“Right away and news crews came from far and wide. Later we followed all the known abducted child procedures and spread the word all across the country in newspapers and such, but Tiffany had no distinguishing features or marks and nothing came of it.”
Rod hesitated to ask, but he had another little girl on his mind - the one down in Texas that his collar got away with killing. “If I promise to read it on my own time, can I see the file?”
The sheriff sighed. “I suppose it won’t hurt. You’ll be stepping on some toes if you start asking questions though.”
“Do you object to my stepping on a few toes?”
“Not really. This case has haunted me for years and I wouldn’t mind having a few answers before I die. I was young and as green as they come back then, yet I had all the best training law enforcement offered, and one small advantage – I grew up here and knew the good from the bad. It just wasn’t enough.”
“Where can I find the file?”
The sheriff pointed to a large file cabinet next to the door.
“Nope, the bottom three.”
End of sample chapter
To be released May 28, 2017
PREORDER THIS BOOK TODAY AT: