With this picture of a camper, sent in by my lovely mother-in-law Becky, you might expect a very specific kind of story. Maybe one about traveling, or about someone who decides to downsize their life and live simply. What fun would it be to go with the expected, though?
What follows is an attempt at a gripping Mystery/Suspense short story. The one thing I learned from today’s story is that it is rather difficult to fit a suspense plot into a condensed story line. That sure didn’t stop me from giving it a go, though!
So what do you think? Something I should attempt again in the future or no? Let me know in the comments below!
Here’s ‘A Surprise in Its Abruptness’:
~~ Corporal Scott Holmes winked at his wife as she set his eggs and bacon in front of him.
“The bacon looks fine,” he said, “but the cook looks finer.”
Meg smiled and gave that little blush that still appeared on her face even after six years of his compliments. He would have complimented her anyway without those two pink spots on her cheeks, but they were a nice reward.
Looking over at the clock, Meg shook her head and said, “You’re going to be late to the school again.”
“Nah. I make up time on the drive over, so it’s all good.”
He threw back the breakfast and a cup of coffee, then stood to his feet. He wrapped Meg up in his arms, loving the perfect way she seemed to fit against him. They were almost the same height, which might have been a negative for some men, but he loved it. He kissed her hair and said, “Have a good day. Don’t let those customers lay you low.”
Meg worked from home as a customer service representative for Hilton, and she was known for her gentle personality. Sometimes that made it easy for others to walk all over her. Scott hated that for his wife, but her easygoing nature made him love her even more.
“If anyone gives you a hard time,” he said, “you tell them your husband’s in law enforcement, and he’ll send petty citations their way.”
Meg laughed and swatted his behind.
“I’m sure that’ll go over well with my supervisors.” She let her smile drop and replaced it with a firm expression. “You be careful out there, mister. Watch your back.”
“The worst thing I’ll probably face today is breaking up another fight between Rita and Arie. Oh, and the drug presentation. Those bored faces looking up at me…” he shook his head.
“There’s been a lot of shootings lately.” Meg got that worried crinkle across her forehead. “As the School Resource Officer, I’m afraid you’ll be a prime target.”
“I know you worry. The chances of that happening at Ekeford High are slim, though. If anything does happen, well, I’d rather be the target than the kids.”
“You’re a good man, Scott Holmes.” Meg laid a kiss on him, then saw him out the door, giving his hand one, long squeeze before he walked away. He gave her a knowing look in return.
As Scott pulled up to the school, he returned dozens of waves and greetings from students and teachers.
“How’s that shot looking, Blake?” he asked the star forward of the basketball team as they walked across the parking lot together.
“Never better!” the teen responded as he returned the proffered fist bump.
“How’s that painting coming along?” Scott asked Cara as he held the door open for her.
“So great, Officer Holmes! I think it might win the competition this year!”
“Good! Glad to hear it!”
“Officer Holmes!” One of the teachers, Mrs. Bradley, ran up to him, her face red with panic. “I locked my keys in the car!”
“No problem, Mrs. Bradley. I’ll get them out after first bell and bring them by your room at lunch.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much!”
As he passed Mr. Harmon’s classroom, the older gentleman gave him a friendly nod and asked, “How are you doing today, Officer Holmes.”
“Not bad, not bad. One day closer to retirement, huh Mr. Harmon?”
“Yes, thank goodness. Another day crossed out on the calendar. I love my students, but I’m looking forward to long days of fishing, and no more grading papers.”
“Can’t blame you for that. I hope you get everything you deserve, Mr. Harmon.” He patted the teacher on his shoulder.
“Thanks! Have a good day!”
The morning was full, but with nothing too terrible. Fetching Mrs. Bradley’s keys took longer than expected, but he still got them to her by the promised time. Bailey had come storming out of math class because of a bad grade, but he’d been easy enough to talk back into the room. Rita and Arie had their little spat at lunch, but once they both vented their side of things to Scott, they calmed down and were friends again.
After lunch, Scott was called to the principal’s office for a meeting. He couldn’t help but feel like he was back in school himself whenever he had to make his way to the big man’s office.
“What’s up?” Scott asked Principal Smith as he sank into one of the office chairs.
“Nothing good, I’m afraid. The county is cutting the education budget yet again. They’re talking about eliminating the School Resource Officer position.”
Scott sighed and said, “I hate to hear it, but I can’t say I didn’t see that coming.”
“Not all hope is lost yet. We’re looking at getting a grant through the Community Oriented Policing Solutions office. That would probably allow us to keep the position longer. I’ll keep you updated on how things progress.”
“Thanks, Mr. Smith.” Scott’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked down at it. “It’s my wife. She usually doesn’t call when I’m at work. Mind if I answer?”
“Of course not! Go right ahead.”
“Hey baby, what’s going on?”
“Scott?” Meg whispered from the other end of the line.
“Yeah, it’s me. You ok?”
“There’s… there’s someone here.” She was crying quietly. “Someone broke… through the back window.”
Scott felt a spike of adrenaline.
“Where are you?” he demanded.
“The pantry. I shut… I shut myself in.”
Scott stood to his feet.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said. “What needs to be done. We’ve gone over it a hundred times. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” came her muffled response. “I have the gun with me.”
“OK, baby, hang tight. I’m on—“
There was an earsplitting scream from Meg and then the sounds of a real struggle.
“What’s going on?” Principal Smith asked. The sounds coming from the phone were loud enough that even he could hear.
Scott didn’t answer. He sprinted for his truck and gunned it home, dialing the station as he did.
When the dispatcher answered he spoke quickly.
“Marj, someone broke into my house and got to Meg. Send everyone you can.”
He threw the phone down and gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Scott ran into the kitchen when he got home and stopped in his tracks when he saw the streak of blood running from the pantry to the middle of the room. He pulled out his gun and held it ready between his hands.
“Meg!” he yelled, running through the rest of the house. She wasn’t there.
Within minutes, three more Ekeford P.D. cars were in front of the house, and five officers rushed in.
“Holmes, talk to me,” said Sergeant Brickerson when he spotted the corporal.
Scott shook his head and looked with wild eyes around his home.
“She called…” He took a deep breath. “She called and said someone had broken in. Then there were screams. The sound of a fight. She’s not here. I checked the whole house.”
“OK, I want a three mile perimeter around the house,” Brickerson told another officer that had walked in. “Get me the forensics team. And the dogs. Send two others to start knocking on doors. I want to know if anyone heard or saw anything. I also want the chopper ready to go within fifteen minutes, you got it?”
Brickerson turned to Scott and asked, “Where did he come in? Where did he exit?”
Scott led the way to the broken window in the laundry room.
“I think he went out the back door off the kitchen,” he said, a tremor obvious in his voice.
“Ok, let’s make sure we get the pathway taped off. We’ll bring everyone in the front door.” Brickerson pulled out a pad of paper and began taking quick notes as he walked back and forth between the entry and exit points. He looked up and pointed at one of the cameras near the ceiling. “How many cameras down here?”
“Three. I put them in for peace of mind,” Scott said. “I never… I never thought they’d be needed.”
“We need to see that footage,” said Brickerson. “Now.”
Scott led the way to the computer in the basement where the footage was recorded.
Heart hammering in his chest, he pulled up the footage from that day and fast forwarded to when he and Meg had started moving around the kitchen. He watched their conversation from over breakfast, then Meg walking him to the door. After that she had cleaned the kitchen and settled in her office chair that was in the living room. Scott fast-forwarded through her morning work, then hit play again when Meg jumped from her chair, her face terrified. She ran to the bookcase and pulled the gun out of the pot there. Then, she ran for the pantry.
Right as she shut herself in, a big figure wearing a black mask and army fatigues ran into the living room. He had a handgun, which he swung around along with his head as he scanned the room. He opened the coat closet, then stormed upstairs. A minute later, he was back down again, making his way to the kitchen.
“No,” Scott whispered, watching as the man yanked open the door.
There was a shot that missed the man. He kicked the gun out of Meg’s hands and dragged her out of the pantry by her hair.
The rest was almost too hard to watch. Meg being pulled across the floor. Meg kicking and screaming. The man wrapping an arm around her waist and dragging her out the back door.
“Any outside cameras?” Brickerson asked.
Scott numbly shook his head.
“We’ll find her, Scott. You know every single one of the officers in this little town adores that sweet lady. None of us will rest until she’s back home.”
The Ekeford Police Department threw everything into the search for Meg. There were no neighbors who saw anything, but the houses on Scott’s street were spread far apart, so that didn’t surprise anyone.
For a short while, it seemed like the dogs had found her scent. They pulled their handlers to the nearby park and ran circles around the playground, but a search of the area came up empty.
“Why would someone do this?” Scott asked Brickerson at the end of the day, moisture gathering in his eyes. “Why Meg? This whole town loves her.”
“I know. We’ll find something. Or there’ll be a call. The perpetrator has to have a reason for taking her.”
“I just can’t think of a single person who would have it out for me or Meg.”
Early the next morning, the dogs found another trail, which led to the first promising hint of discovery. A piece of cloth that had caught on a patch of brambles in the nearby stretch of woods. With the discovery of the cloth, all the forces were pulled from other parts of the town and into the woods. It wasn’t until midmorning that Scott realized he hadn’t told the school he wouldn’t be in.
“We understand, Officer Holmes,” said Principal Smith when Scott called him. “Take all the time you need. Our thoughts are with you and the others as you search.”
At noon, as they were all out combing the woods, the first terrifying news came in.
“We’ve got reports of shots fired at Ekeford High.” It was Marj’s voice that broke out of Brickerson’s radio. She was calm even under the worst situations.
All of the emergency responders and volunteers went still as the alert went out over the radios.
“Who do we have in the area?” Brickerson asked.
“Everyone’s out searching,” came Marj’s reply.
Brickerson cursed, and with that short declaration, there was a burst of activity as everyone tried to get organized and figure out the best and quickest way through the woods and to the school.
Scott sprinted away from the group, ignoring Brickerson, who was calling out to him. He had to get to the school. He had to make sure everything was ok. He was the School Resource Officer, and the kids needed to see him there.
His truck was waiting for him in the gravel parking lot where the hiking trails began. He jumped in and pushed the gas pedal to the floor, debris flying up from the wheels as he fishtailed out onto the road.
The parking lot of Ekeford High School was chaos. There were teens running and screaming, while others had fallen in their rush to get out. They were curled up on the asphalt, tears streaming down their faces. Some students and teachers were trying to help them up, while most simply jumped over their fallen classmates and kept running.
“Officer Holmes!” Mrs. Bradley screamed when she saw him.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Shooter…” She was breathing hard.
“Where? How many hurt?” He was already pulling out his gun.
“Don’t… don’t know. Mr. Harmon. He was… heading for… Mr. Harmon’s room. I saw him!”
“Ok, Mrs. Bradley. More officers will be here any second. You tell them what you told me. Tell them I went and am heading for Mr. Harmon’s room. Understand?”
Mrs. Bradley moved her head rapidly up and down.
Scott moved toward the school, trying to stay out of the way of the oncoming students. As he got closer to the building, though, the tide seemed to slow down. By the time he made it to the doors, only a few teens were still trickling their way out.
With controlled, yet hurried movements, Scott made his way down the hall, checking each classroom he passed to make sure it was empty. As he neared Mr. Harmon’s room, he slowed and listened. The air was still and silent around him. The shooter was not making any commotion if still nearby.
Scott stepped around the corner to Mr. Harmon’s room, gun raised. And he saw the body.
Rushing forward, Scott knelt next to Mr. Harmon. There looked to be three bullet holes in the older man’s torso and chest. Blood seeped from the wounds and pooled along the floor next to him. His eyes were wide open, the fear still clearly in them. Though he knew what the outcome would be, Scott felt Harmon’s carotid artery. No pulse.
He stood and looked down at the body. The man had been counting down to long days in the sun, no worries or cares. Life was a surprise in its abruptness.
Scott heard the voices of his fellow officers carry down the hall. He stepped out of Mr. Harmon’s room and got their attention.
“It’s Mr. Harmon,” he told Brickerson as the sergeant approached the room.
“Poor Mr. Harmon. Wasn’t he retiring this year?”
As the scene was investigated by the forensics team and Mr. Harmon’s body was bagged up, Scott went with Brickerson to watch surveillance tape.
“It’s him,” Scott growled.
The shooter was very familiar. The same black mask and army fatigued figure that had been caught on his own home surveillance.
“Same outfit. Same build.” Brickerson shook his head. “Yeah, it’s him.”
By the end of the day, they had all learned that Mr. Harmon had been the only casualty. The shooter had fired a few shots in the air to scare everyone and get the building cleared, then he had cornered Harmon in the man’s classroom and shot him down. After that, the shooter had gone out through a back entrance, dumping his gun in a trash can by the back door.
Investigating the gun didn’t do any good. It was one that had been stolen from Harmon’s truck months before, and there were no prints on it.
All the forces that had originally been sent out to find Meg were diverted to finding the shooter. Since it was becoming painfully clear he had taken the woman as a way to get all of the area’s law enforcement sidetracked, the thinking was, if they found the shooter, they’d eventually get to Meg.
After three months, though, the community began to accept that the shooter wasn’t going to be found. He had walked into the woods after killing Mr. Harmon and disappeared without a trace. His motives were unclear. No one could understand why anyone would want to hurt the much loved school teacher. He had been in the Ekeford area for five years, and during that time, he had been a valuable member of the town.
Another thing became painfully obvious. Meg was never coming back home.
A vigil was held in her honor in the town square. Scott stood with his fellow officers and listened with tears streaming down his face as various residents of Ekeford stood and touted the merits of Meg Holmes. It was a beautiful tribute.
“We hate to see you leave,” Brickerson said the next day as Scott loaded only the essentials into the back of his truck.
There was a sale sign in the front yard of the house. He had told the town to donate the proceeds to the Ekeford High Scholarship Fund.
“Thanks,” said Scott. “But I can’t stay here. Too many memories.”
“I understand. You stay in touch, though.”
“I will. And you’ll let me know if you hear anything more about the case?”
“You know I will.”
Scott got in his truck and waved at Brickerson as he pulled out of the driveway.
He didn’t stop again until he had driven thirty miles out of town and an additional ten miles down a barely there mud road, filled with gaping holes and partially covered by overgrown weeds. He stopped when he spotted the familiar marking stone and got out of the truck. Four miles of hiking through dense wood, and the camper came into view.
He whistled when he was about one hundred feet out, and a moment later, the door flew open.
“It’s done,” Scott said. “There will never be anything that points back to us.”
Tears instantly pooled in Meg’s eyes as she walked over and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered in his ear, voice full of emotion. “Thank you.”
Scott kissed her hair, then pushed her back.
“You were right about that pre-recorded kidnapping scene we did. I don’t know how you fed it into the footage loop, but it worked.”
“Told you I’m good at all that.”
“Where’s the stuff?” he asked.
She led the way into the camper and reached up into one of the cabinets, pulling out a black duffel bag. Setting it down, she opened it and grabbed the black mask and army fatigues. There was also stuffing she had used in the clothing to make herself appear bulkier.
“You thought I would hesitate,” she said, “but I didn’t. I just pulled the trigger. Three times. I watched him fall.”
“Good job, baby.” He grabbed up the bag, smiling when the pink dots appeared on her cheeks at the compliment. “I’ll burn these before we go.”
“We should burn my diary, too.”
“Good thinking. Get your things ready. When I’m done, we’ll leave.”
Scott grabbed the container of fire starter fluid and walked to the pit out back. He threw the clothes and stuffing over the wood pile, doused it with fluid, and set a match to everything. As the flames began building in intensity, Scott flipped open the journal in his hand. He let the pages pass by, stopping when he got to the entry from January 23, 2000.
“Mr. Harmon kept me back after school today. Again. He cornered me… There was nothing I could do. He said if I say anything, he’ll tell DSS about mom. If anyone finds out about her, Beth and I will be taken. Beth won’t survive in the system. I can’t let her be taken. But I don’t know how many more times I can do this. The cutting helps, but for how much longer? How much deeper does the blade have to go to take this pain away?”
Scott felt his anger burning hotter than the fire in front of him. He’d read the words a dozen times before, and still they enraged him. But the problem had been taken care of. Justice had been done. Mr. Harmon wouldn’t have the chance to hurt anyone ever again.
He threw the notebook onto the fire and watched it burn. When he was sure the only thing left was a pile of untraceable ashes, he went back into the camper.
“Where to?” he asked as he wrapped Meg up in his arms. He had always loved the way she fit next to him, but the need for their figures to look similar in the footage of both the kidnapping and the school shooting made him appreciate it that much more.
“Far, far away from Pennsylvania. West. Arizona maybe? We can buy some dogs and live out in the desert. Off grid.”
“Sounds good to me. Let’s go.”
As the truck made its way out of the woods, Meg looked at him and smiled. It was the first time he’d seen her face completely free of care, and he knew right then, everything had been worth it.