“I heard from the Sheriff that she was only nine. Nine! God help us! What kind of world are we living in, Tom, when an innocent girl, a child, can’t even walk to school. And in our little community.”
Battered and worn, Tom’s metal cup caught the last drop of coffee from the percolator; black, chicory coffee that had, again, been brewed too long. Ain’t like yours, Sylvia. Ain’t like yours.
He placed it Jim’s waiting hand.
“Thanks, Tom. I’ve been the Post Master in Rome for how long now? Let’s see, you and Sylvia had just moved here, drove into town with, well, in that car of yours. Damn ugly car! Same year we bought our new home. He-he. About fifteen years, I reckon.”
“And this is the first time. I can’t figure it out. I’m sure the Reverend will have something on this tomorrow. I don’t know, Tom. Is this part the plan, His plan? Now don’t go tell’n people I’m a blasphemer, ‘cause I aint! Well, thanks for the cup–o-tar. I got to tell ya, that’s the worst coffee I’ve ever had! He-he. See ya, Tom. Oh, and good luck today.”
It was already hot enough to wear the hat, a gardening hat that was round on top and had a wide brim which shaded the shoulders. He took it off the metal hook on the wall, called out that he was “Leaving for Franklin’s”, and moved outside into the heavy morning air. Behind him, the screen door slammed. Tom crossed the small yard. As he always did on Saturday mornings, he stopped for a moment under the magnolia. The morning sun was winding its way through the branches and leaves. From his pocket he produced a wire bound note pad, glanced through the first few pages, nodded at the scribbling and breathed a little heavier.
He put the pad away and moved down the sidewalk. Staying to one side or the other, he watched and listened for signs on the way to Franklin’s. Today, Sylvia. Maybe today. The hat ties dangled about his ears and swayed as he walked.
Jim was on Mrs. Windfield’s porch with the blue mail sack over his shoulder and Mrs. Windfield’s homemade biscuit in his one free hand.
“…on Fourth Street. They found her backpack there. In broad daylight, Jim. Sally’s mother used to live there. Good morning, Tom! Quiet woman, but such good BBQ. Makes her own sauce called King’s Sauce, or something. Supposed to have three different kinds of alcohol in it. Yup. True as the day is long. So I said to her ma, ‘Cybil, why not just serve it in shot glasses!”
Four. Three. Forty-three? Thirty-four? Which one?
Tom added the numbers to his notebook and walked on towards Franklin’s Drugstore as he always did on Saturdays.