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A double-murder in a nightmarish Garden of Eden challenges an undersheriff in over her head

Charlotte Hinger's chilling mystery features plenty of suspense but also an unexpected star -- a boy's sadly touching diary entries

2018 Colorado Book Award finalist for Mystery

I jumped when Jane Jordan came through the door carrying a book in her arms. Apologetic, nervous, she thrust it toward me. “Margaret thought we should throw this away. I think we should keep it. She agreed to let you decide.”

“Good! That’s what you all are supposed to do if there is any doubt.”

“We hated to interrupt you.”

“Nonsense. How are things going?”

“Fine. Just fine.”

They probably were, and I suddenly missed the smell of glue pots and musty books.

“Fractured Families” by Charlotte Hinger. (Handout)

“I have to get back now. Angie is laying out some pages and I’m looking up some information on early railroading for some caller from Texas. And Margaret is planning next week’s projects.” She moved toward the door. “Bye, bye.”

“Goodbye. Say hello to everyone. Tell Margaret I said you all did the right thing. Let me decide this kind of stuff.”

She left. She looked happy. Hell, they all looked happy every time I saw them. Why not? They all knew what they were doing and what the outcome was supposed to be. None of them had risen to their highest level of incompetence like me.

I was over my head in the worst kind of way with this double murder. A dead 4-H’er. A dead baby. A setting that breeds nightmares.

I carried the heavy three ring binder to my desk. It would give me something to do while I waited to hear from Topeka.

The first page was illustrated by hand with a border of vines and diamond motifs.

My Commonplace Book

By

Franklin Slocum

A commonplace book! They were a nineteenth-century pastime. Commonplace books were not journals or diaries although some contained such entries. They held a hodgepodge—poems and programs and words of wisdom, observations. Whatever. But a three-ring binder was obviously not nineteenth century. Who would keep such a thing, and why would they call it a commonplace book? It was such an odd thing to do.

The next page began with a sort of free verse writing with a hand as beautiful as calligraphy. Fascinated, I was finally able to turn my attention to something other than murder.

I quickly realized this was not an ordinary commonplace book, either. It was filled with diary and journal entries.

There was a picture of a very young boy about six or seven I guessed. Was this the book’s owner? There was no way to tell, but whoever was writing was a quite a bit older. The same boy? Perhaps. The third page introduced an entry that made the book different from a classic commonplace book. The name again.

Franklin Slocum

My Life Story

Once again the page was elaborately decorated in calligraphy. The next page began:

I was born but I shouldn’t have been. My mother told me so. I have been all wrong since the very beginning. My feet do not work right. They are the first thing people notice about me. My feet turn toward each other so I can’t run. Not really. I would look like a bear trying to run on two legs except I’m not as big as the other boys. So bear is the wrong word.

The other boys have a father. Biddy won’t talk to me about him at all. Her face gets red and she gets that look on her face that I know means she hates him all over again.

She comes into my room at night and stands by my bed staring at me. On the worst nights she sits in a chair by my bed and I can feel her looking at me. When I peek her hands are clasped so hard her knuckles are white. I know she is trying hard not to kill me. I know she won’t because she is my mother and she knows it is wrong. I pretend to be asleep, but when her head is lowered I look and her hands work the corner of her apron over and over.

The entry ended abruptly. Then there was a carefully glued fragment of a robin’s egg and a clipping about the nesting habits of robins from an old newspaper. The next page contained a staff of music and the beginning of a song. This was typical of commonplace books. Random. Disorganized. His life, page two:

Biddy takes me with her when she cleans people’s houses. I can’t talk right either so she tries to work when they are gone and don’t ask so many questions. They tell Biddy they are so so sorry her child is retarded. They can’t see how mad that makes her, but I know. I always know. There’s a place on her neck that moves in and out.

My name is Franklin but everyone calls me Dummy because I can only make funny noises or Duck Boy because my feet won’t work right either.

She made me go to school and then everyone was mad. The teachers were mad because they had to put up with me. “It’s the law,” Biddy said triumphantly when she drug me to first grade. “Kansas law. Mainstreaming. Every child gets a chance at an education.”

Some of the parents were mad too. They said their kids should not have to go to school with a retard. The kids said mean things to me at first, but I was lucky most of the time. I could not talk right, so I didn’t talk at all. I wouldn’t cry so they found other kids who were not retarded and more fun to torment. I sat like a lump. Was a lump. But when the teacher talked I paid attention. No one could stop me from paying attention.

I learned to read and figure. They didn’t give me any tests and when I shambled off to the library and started hauling books back to read, they were mostly relieved that I never caused trouble. I don’t know what they thought I was doing when I turned the pages. Liking the flutter, I guess.

Biddy gets some money for taking care of me so she picks me up in her car after school. It’s important to her to have people think she’s taking care of me. When we get home she lets me do anything I want to. I can go to the pond or stay out all night. She doesn’t care. I can walk well enough to suit myself so that’s what I do. I know she hopes I will die.

But I don’t want to.

My friends are all the animals. Once when I was around one of the churches I found a bulletin about the animals.

I turned to a separate page and there was the order of service for the Blessing of the Animals. In honor of St. Francis of Assisi.

A lovely prayer. Just lovely. It was a litany of all the animals had to teach us.

The phone rang, jarring me from the commonplace book to the real world. It was Sam.

“Need to give you a heads up. All hell is breaking loose. The Salina Journal just ran a story entitled ‘The Ghost Baby Killer strikes again.’”

“One death and they have a label on the tip of their tongue?” I was furious. When we hung up I was going to call the editor and give him a piece of my mind.

“No. Apparently not. The most important word in that headline is ‘again.’”

My heart sank. “Don’t tell me this kind of thing has happened before.”

“Well, it did. And I remember the other one now. I didn’t pay enough attention at the time because these deaths weren’t in my county. There was a similar one involving a baby ten years ago.”

“In the Garden of Eden?”

“No. At Hays. There was the body of a dead baby.”

“Where?”

He cleared his throat. “The Elizabeth Polly Park.”

“Elizabeth Polly? The Blue Light Lady?”

“Some call her that, yes.”

“Oh, Sam. Where was the baby found?”

“In Elizabeth Polly’s arms.”

“Pete Felten’s statue of Elizabeth Polly?” I tried to process what he had just told me. “Another female statue? But her arms are at her sides. She’s clutching a bouquet of flowers in one hand. No place for her to hold anything.”

“Doesn’t matter. Stuffed between the bouquet and her right side was a dead baby.”

“It was ten years ago? But my god, how can it not be the same person?”

“We need to talk. I’ll be in the office tomorrow.” He sounded weary. Worn down. “Do you want me to read the article to you?”

“No, I’ll read it on-line. I’ll go to the historical society and do some extra research before I head home. And you get some rest.”

We hung up. I looked at my watch. It was after four o’clock. The historical society would close in another hour. I should be able to access old newspapers from this office but it would take a while before our computer system was in place.

I called the historical society to let the women know I was coming.

“You all can leave early if you want,” I said when I breezed in the door. “I need to work here for a while.”

I headed for the server and Angie proudly showed me the latest pages all ready for the printer.

“I’ll copy these right now so you can take them home with you tonight.”

After they left I turned on the microfilm printer and inserted the Hays Daily News reel and forwarded to the date Sam had given me.

Baby found in Elizabeth Polly Park

The Ellis County Sheriff’s office has called in the KBI to investigate the discovery of a dead newborn baby in the arms of Pete Felten’s statue of Elizabeth Polly in the park named for her. The infant was judged to be less than a day old by the coroner and was swaddled in a blanket and wedged between the side of the statue and the bouquet of flowers she was holding. The park has very few visitors in the winter months and was likely placed there under the cover of darkness. It was discovered by some children who were playing hide and seek. There is no record of any woman giving birth within the last twenty-four hours at any of the area hospitals. Please call in any tips or information to Sergeant Lightner at 785 482 2213.

Elizabeth Polly gave aid to Fort Hays soldiers during the cholera epidemic of 1867. Fort Hays was closed in 1905 and the bodies moved to Leavenworth, but hers was left behind. Her spirit allegedly roams the cemetery in a long blue dress searching for the missing bodies of the soldiers. She is said to carry a lamp and has a blue aura. Hence, Polly is often referred to as the Blue Light Lady.

I scrolled to the next months’ pages to see if there were any follow-up announcements. None. No progress whatsoever. I printed out the relevant pages, then rewound the film, placed it back in its folder and put it back in the file drawer. Any updates could probably be found through Google and police databases.

On the drive back to the farm, I kept thinking about these perfect little babies struggling to draw one more icy breath.

Kansas has Safe Haven laws. Babies can be left at fire departments, hospitals, and police stations without fear of prosecution. In a day and age when hospitals and fire departments have programs that let mothers drop newborns off at a hospital with no questions asked why in God’s name would anyone want to let a little baby freeze to death?

In addition to that mystery was how a new mother could have the strength to leave an infant either in the Elizabeth Polly park or the Garden of Eden? The answer was obvious—they couldn’t. No women who had just given birth would be physically able to put a baby in Reaching Woman’s arms. In fact, Sam was still puzzled as to how a man in his prime could manage it. Putting an infant in the arms of Elizabeth Polly’s statue would be easy physically except that it happened in the dead of winter during a storm. What woman who had just given birth would be up to walking in a blizzard to leave her baby in a strange place?

Sam would be pleased that I finally could say one thing with absolutely certainty. We could rule out the mother in both situations.


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