Rita drew in a deep breath of sweet, crisp autumn air, glanced around the yard filled with bright orange pumpkins basking in a late afternoon light, and smiled. “So beautiful,” she told Rhonda.
Rhonda nodded. “Sure is,” she agreed feeling the autumn wind playing in her strawberry blonde hair. The wind was also playing in Rita's hair, making the two twin sisters appear like two breathtaking beautiful dreams that only the autumn air could see into.
“Wonder where Billy is?” Rita asked.
Rhonda shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows?” she asked. What Rhonda did know was that her sister wasn't wearing a new pink and white dotted dress for nothing. Rita was having feelings for Billy Northfield.
Rita quickly brushed at her dress and looked over at Rhonda. Rhonda was standing as comfortable as can be. The green and white dress she was wearing was happily flapping in the wind, playing a sweet song without a care in the world. Rita felt a little nervous and anxious about seeing Billy again. “Oh, why did I like that man?” she complained. “Billy is...well, he's only a simple farmer. We have absolutely nothing in common. I'm practical and he's...he works with his hands, not his mind. And...and...” Rita sighed and stopped talking.
Rhonda grinned. “Sounds like you're falling head over heels for Billy.”
Rita tapped a pumpkin with a white shoe and sighed again. “I like Billy,” she confessed, “but I am not interested in rushing into a relationship. The Pumpkin Festival is still taking place and our bakery is soaring.” Rita studied the white shoes she was wearing. Love or not love she had learned to wear practical shoes when visiting Billy's farm. “We've already solved two murder cases...and Erma has been so wonderful in running the bakery while we're away. It wouldn't be smart to consume my time with silly feelings when we have a bakery to operate.”
Rhonda knew her sister was only trying to deny the truth by tapping into her 'Practical' box full of smoke and mirrors. However, she also knew that with love, it was better not to tease Rita too much. Rita was very sensitive when it came to opening her heart to...well, anyone. “There's no rush, sis,” she smiled and walked her eyes around the sweet pumpkin patch standing before her. Oh, how the autumn leaves danced across the pumpkins like two old friends sharing a cup of coffee on a cold night. “Just smell that air,” she said and drew in a deep breath. “So fresh...brisk...alive. And look at the landscape…pumpkins as far as the eye can see...trees dripping with red and burnt gold leaves...corn patches swaying in the wind...apple trees giggling in the orchards...so beautiful.”
“You've been writing again, haven't you?” Rita asked.
Rhonda blushed. “Oh...the last few nights I dabbled in some creative writing,” she confessed. “Nothing serious, though.”
Rita moaned. “You're writing about Shelia and Phillip again, aren't you?”
Rhonda's cheeks turned a darker red. “Maybe?” she winced.
“Oh Rhonda, you've sent your story about Shelia and Phillip to every publisher you can think of.” Rita raised her right hand and covered her forehead. “It's not that your story is awful...because it isn't. Your writing style is very...unique. It's just that...well, a story about an unemployed thief from Hungary, who is very overweight falling in love with a woman from London who sweeps chimneys—a woman that is thinner than a broomstick—just isn't...copacetic.”
“Shelia and Phillip's love is filled with humor.” Rhonda explained as her cheeks continued to turn redder and redder. “Shelia talks Phillip into leaving his life of crime and he agrees to help her sweep chimneys. Only he's too...fat...and gets stuck all the time and--”
“I get it, I get it,” Rita cried out in a painful voice.
Rhonda winced. “Maybe...I should turn their love story into a...musical?” she asked.
Rita laughed. “Maybe you should let the two poor souls get married, move to a tropical island, and spend the rest of their days walking a warm beach?”
Rhonda laughed. “Maybe?”
Rita patted her sister's shoulders. “Sometimes I wonder what is going on in that mind of yours?” she asked.
“Right now...oh, pizza,” Rhonda laughed again.
“A pizza sounds good,” Rita agreed. “We can stop on the way home, grab one and have a movie night?”
Rhonda gave Rita one of her 'Sister' looks. “You didn't come out to Billy's farm to go home empty handed.”
“What do you mean?” Rita asked. Now it was time for her to blush.
“You want to have dinner with Billy tonight,” Rhonda smiled.
“Well...the thought did cross my mind, but the more I think about it...” Rita looked around, spotted Billy walking down a dirt trail toward the pumpkin patch, and shook her head. “Billy's coming. We'll talk more later.”
Rhonda spotted Billy trudging along wearing his usual overalls and baseball cap, looking like a Georgia farmer if she had ever seen one. “Hey Billy!” she called out and waved.
Billy smiled and waved back. “Sorry to keep ya waiting so long. Jose was having a problem with one of them tourist folk again and I had to talk some sense into the fella.”
Rhonda giggled. “Did you hogtie the man, Billy?” she asked.
Rita fought back a sweet giggle. “I bet he did,” she whispered.
“Nah,” Billy called out as he exited the dirt path and walked up to Rita and Rhonda, “I just told him if he didn't like the price I charged for a bushel of apples he could take his business elsewhere.” Billy looked straight at Rita, watched her sweet hair play in the autumn wind, saw her lovely eyes glitter in the afternoon light, and lost his heart to the beauty of her face.
“Uh, Billy?” Rhonda asked.
“Huh?” Billy asked.
Rita saw the way Billy was looking at her and blushed. “The...tourist, remember?”
“Oh...oh yeah, the tourist,” Billy said and blushed himself. He felt like a silly high school kid preparing to ask the sweetest girl in the world if he could court her. “I told the fella to pay my asking price or leave,” he said.
“And?” Rhonda asked, eager to hear Billy's story.
Billy frowned. “The hardheaded fella decided that I wasn't being reasonable and wanted to argue with me,” Billy explained and rolled his eyes. “The fella told me that where he comes from in New York people are more civilized and pay reasonable prices. Now I may not be the smartest fella in the world but I know an insult when I heard one.”
Rita and Rhonda both giggled. “What did you do?” Rita asked.
“Well,” Billy rubbed the back of his neck, “the fella’s wife was standing close by with a newborn baby...real pretty little boy. I didn't want to lose my temper and all, so I told the fella it don't matter where you go, you pay as you go or stay home. The fella gave me one of them 'Mean' looks folks with no hearts have and left with his wife and baby.” Billy shook his head. “I just can't understand folks sometimes. I mark my apples as low as I can go but some folks just don't seem to understand that a man has to turn profit to put a little food on his table.”
“You should have hogtied the man,” Rhonda smiled and tossed Billy a wink.
“I might have done just that if the fella’s wife and baby wasn't with him,” Billy assured Rhonda and tossed her a wink right back. “Anyway, you ladies called me and said you wanted to come buy pumpkins to do some baking with?”
“That's right,” Rhonda beamed. “Our pumpkin pies are selling quicker than we can make them.”
“With Erma's help ,” Rita quickly explained. “Erma has a secret recipe and--”
“Say no more, say no more,” Billy quipped. “I've eaten my share of Erma's pies and...” Billy patted his chubby farmer’s belly. “I didn't get this belly by denying Erma my business.”
Rhonda looked at Rita and grinned. Rita smiled. “We're very grateful that Erma has taken us under her wing.”
“Ah, don't think nothing of it,” Billy assured Rita. “Erma has a piece of sweet corn in her soul that life just can't sour. Besides,” Billy lowered his voice and whispered: “Erma gets mighty bored sitting at home. But don't tell her I said that or she'll slap what sense I do have clean out of my head.”
Rhonda had to bite down hard on her lip to keep from bursting out laughing. Billy, without knowing it, was not only the sweetest man she had ever met but funny, too. “Okay, Billy, will you help us pick out some pumpkins?”
“We were planning to come tomorrow, but...” Rita paused. How was she supposed to tell Billy the real reason for her visit? Sure, Erma did need a lot of fresh pumpkins, but the pumpkins were of no real rush; Erma still had a few left at the bakery. “It's such a beautiful day we thought it would be nice to get some fresh air.”
“Well, you couldn't have picked a better day,” Billy commented. He drew in a deep breath, nodded his head like a man pleased with a grand turkey meal, and looked around. “Yep, on days like this I sure am happy to be a farmer. Land couldn't be more beautiful if it tried. The Good Lord sure knows how to make His world pretty for the eyes and sweet to the soul. Yes, sir.”
Rhonda glanced at her sister. Rita was staring at Billy with tender eyes that told Rhonda all she needed to know. “Billy,” she said as an idea struck her mind. “We're going to need apples, too...lots of apples.”
“Apples?” Billy asked. “But I just sold you a store full of apples last week.”
“Uh...we need more,” Rhonda said and nudged Rita with her elbow. “Isn't that right, sister?”
Rita gave Rhonda a confused look. Then, to her horror, she saw her sister's eyes dancing back and forth. “We're fine and--”
“We need more apples,” Rhonda quickly interrupted. “I think I'll let you pick out the pumpkins and I’ll walk over to the apple house.”
Before Rita could say another word Rhonda hurried away, leaving her standing alone with Billy. Billy smiled. “That woman wants us to get married awful soon,” he laughed.
Rita blushed. “She was obvious, wasn't she?”
Billy nodded. “Ain't no way you two ladies went through all them apples I sold you,” he laughed again. “Erma may bake the best apple pies in town but she doesn't cut through apples like hot butter.”
“I'm sorry,” Rita apologized.
“For what?” Billy asked. He dared to look in Rita's sweet eyes. “I reckon it ain't no secret I think you're...well, prettier than a sunset falling over my farm.”
Rita felt her cheeks turn red. “Well...thank you, Billy. That's sweet.”
Billy looked down at her his work boots. “I was kinda happy when you called and said you wanted to drive out to my farm. I...like seeing you.”
“I like you seeing you, too, Billy.” Rita looked down with nervous eyes. Now she was feeling like a silly high school girl waiting to be asked out on a date. “Maybe...we should look at some pumpkins?”
“Oh, sure...sure,” Billy said in a quick voice and walked Rita out into the pumpkin patch. “These pumpkins are good for baking.”
Rita explored the beautiful pumpkins with her eyes. As she did a wonderful feeling washed through a heart; a feeling of home. “It's very lovely out here,” she confessed and glanced around. “I love how the trees hug the edges of each field. I love how each tree is a different color...yellow...red...green...orange. Autumn colors are so beautiful,” Rita explained, feeling like a woman instead of a cop.
Billy looked around. “My daddy always said autumn was the syrup in a good biscuit.”
“I...yes, that makes sense,” Rita agreed, trying desperately to understand the mind of Billy's daddy.
“Yep,” Billy said and drew in another deep breath, “my daddy said that when he got to heaven he hoped it would be autumn year around. Now that he's in heaven I guess he's finding out.” Billy looked at Rita. “Wasn't a better man,” he told her in a soft voice. “My daddy didn't get past the fifth grade but he built the best farm in all of Georgia with his bare hands.”
Rita stared into Billy's eyes and saw a soft sadness settle in. “I bet your daddy was a wonderful man.”
“Daddy would give a stranger the shirt off his back,” Billy nodded. “But he sure didn't take to people with a mouth on them. Daddy treated people with respect and demanded those same people return the favor. He was kind but tough. Daddy didn't let his family, friends or employees walk all over him, let me tell ya. Folks respected him for that.”
Rita tried to imagine Billy's daddy in her mind. She saw an old man sitting on a front porch bathed in a late evening light, holding a cane, wearing overalls, and sipping sweet tea while staring out at a sleepy farm. “You miss your daddy, don't you?”
“I miss my momma and my daddy both,” Billy told Rita without a second’s worth of hesitation. “My folks were the best around. Oh, I'm not saying they didn't have problems or didn't let their tongues slip up every now and then. I've taken my share of scoldings from my momma, my share of trips behind the wood pile with my daddy. But when you strip the bark to look at the wood, well, they were the best kind of wood a person could hope to meet.”
Rita reached out and touched Billy's hand before she could stop herself. “Good people are rare,” she smiled. “I'm glad I'm standing in the presence of someone who is rare.”
Billy looked down at Rita's soft hand touching his and nearly fainted. Why in the world, he wondered, was a beautiful woman like Rita standing in a pumpkin patch with a country bumpkin like himself? Why, Billy Northfield was just a plain old farmer who thought Shakespeare had a few bugs in his brain and who felt sorry for poor old Charlie Brown; poor kid could never kick the football Lucy teased him with. So why was Rita Knight, a beautiful dream, wasting her time with him? Billy didn't know. But before he could ask Jose came exploding out of nowhere with a panic stricken face.
“Billy! Billy!” Jose yelled, “come quick! There's a dead man in the apple orchard! Hurry!”
Rita looked at Billy. Billy didn't say a word.
* * *
Rita hurried into the orchard with Billy, running over fallen apples, lumpy ground, and rocks. Endless rows of apple trees brushed past her as Billy dodged into one lane and then another, maneuvering through the orchard like a skilled hunter tracking a rabbit through the wilderness of Alaska. Rita wasn't even sure where she was at? The acreage alone consumed more raw land than Rita's mind could understand. “How does he keep up with it all?” she thought, dodging into another lane.
“This way!” Jose cried, leading the way.
Billy glanced back at Rita. “Reckon some fella might have had himself a heart attack,” he said in a calm voice. “Years back a fella dropped dead right inside of my apple house.”
Rita nodded. It was possible, she thought, that a person exploring the sweet smelling area could die of a heart attack. But something on Jose's face worried her. Something in the young man's eyes told her that the dead man had not died from natural causes. “How much farther?” she asked Billy.
“North part is not too much farther,” Billy said, turned his head back around, and focused on Jose. “What was this fella doing, Jose? We're only selling from the south end today.”
Jose, dressed in his usual brown work shirt, stopped moving, turned, and looked at Billy with worried eyes. “I know, I know,” he said in an upset voice. “I went to the north part of the orchard to check on Maria. She and Juan are cutting bad branches today...and well, I'm a little jealous.”
“Did Maria and Juan find the dead fella?” Billy asked, taking a second to catch his breath.
Jose shook his head. “I didn't find Maria and Juan...all I found was a dead man.” Jose looked at Rita. “I didn't kill him...honest. I just...” Jose rubbed the back of his neck with scared hands. “This is the second time I found a dead body in the orchard...you're not going to believe me.”
“Stop that nonsense,” Billy ordered Jose. “We know you ain't no killer. Why, you go out of your way to take a hornet’s nest off into the woods instead of spraying the thing down with hornet killer spray.” Billy shifted his eyes around the orchard, studied the silent lands, listened to the autumn winds whispering through the apple trees, and shook his head. “Won't be the first time a stranger decided to wander off and get lost,” he told Rita.
Rita studied the apple orchard. “Jose, we need to hurry,” she ordered. Jose nodded his head and took off. Billy looked at Rita, studied her eyes, and then hurried away.
Ten minutes later Jose slid to a stop and pointed at a row of apple trees. “Over there between those rows of Granny Smith apple trees.”
Rita began to reach down and retrieved her gun and then remembered she had left her gun at home. “Today was supposed to be peaceful,” she whispered in a miserable voice.
“What?” Billy asked.
“Nothing,” Rita told Billy and eased over to the row of Granny Smith apple trees on cautious legs. Billy followed. “There,” Rita said in a careful voice, spotting a man face down on the ground.
“I see him,” Billy moaned.
Rita nodded. She carefully approached the body and stopped. “Looks like a city man.”
“Yep,” Billy said pulling a fancy gray suit into his worried eyes. “His haircut ain't country, either. And look and at them shoes...shoes like that cost a pretty penny.”
Rita felt impressed by Billy's observation skills Then again, she reminded herself, the man was a farmer who could spot a rotten apple a mile away. “Do you recognize this man, Billy?”
Billy shook his head no. “Afraid I don't,” he said. “Jose, you better go find Rhonda Knight and tell her to scoot over here and then call the sheriff.”
“Brad is out of town,” Rita told Billy. “He left Charlie Murray in charge.”
Billy lifted an aggravated hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I forgot the sheriff took his wife to see her family and left that no good Charlie in charge.” It was no secret that Billy Northfield and Charlie Murray were sworn enemies. Hard feelings between the two men began while they were in high school together. Charlie swore Billy took his place on the football team and Billy swore Charlie didn't get a position because he was a lousy player. The truth was—a truth everyone in town knew—Coach Ridgeland had cut Charlie from the team because Charlie was, in fact, a lousy player who couldn't block, catch or kick worth a flip. Still, Charlie blamed Billy and Billy—well, being Billy—didn't take lip from a smart mouth know-it-all. “Reckon the law is the law, though...no matter who is wearing the badge.”
“I'll find Rhonda and then call Charlie,” Jose promised and dashed away like a streak of lightning.
Rita knelt down and began searching the dead body for wounds. “Back is clear,” she said and then cautiously rolled the body over. The face of a handsome man appeared, covered with dirt. Rita looked into the face, sighed, and continued her search. “Here,” she told Billy in a quick voice and pointed to the man's neck. “He's been strangled to death.”
“Strangled...” Billy bowed his head and closed his eyes. “You mean this fella was murdered.”
“I'm afraid so, Billy,” Rita nodded her head. “I'll see if I can find his wallet.”
Billy opened his eyes and watched Rita check the dead man's jacket. He saw a skilled cop hard at work—a woman who was no stranger to murder. “Reckon you've seen a lot of murders, huh? Not counting the ones you've seen since moving to Clovedale Falls.”
“My sister and I are no strangers to it, for sure”, Rita told Billy as she continued to search for a wallet. “I have to admit the case of the ‘Clovedale Falls Retirement Home’ as my sister and I call it, was one of the strangest. There were a lot of different actors involved in that murder. Rhonda and I really pulled that case off by the hair of our chin.” Rita stuck her hand into the inside pocket of the jacket and felt a piece of paper. “Found something.” Billy watched Rita pull out a folded up piece of computer paper, glanced around, and then start reading. “Oh…”
“What is it?” Billy asked, reading the surprised expression in Rita's eyes.
“Uh...Billy...” Rita paused. She raised her eyes and looked up into a worried, innocent, face. “You...better read this.”
Billy bent down and took the piece of paper from Rita, read the typed words sitting on the paper, and then looked at Rita with confused eyes. “I don't get it?” he confessed.
Rita took the paper back and read the typed words aloud.
“Billy, come to the old deserted town or more people will die.”
Rita shoved the piece of paper into the front pocket of her dress and focused back on trying to locate a wallet but came up empty handed. “No wallet,” she said, stood up, brushed off her dress, and looked around.
Billy stood up, shoved his hands into the pockets of his overalls, and shook his head. “Why, I don't even know who this fella is. Why would someone go leaving a note for me in his pocket?”
Rita rotated her eyes over to Billy, examined the man's worried, confused and frustrated face, and then felt a sense of helplessness wash over her. “I don't know, Billy?” she confessed, wishing she could put her arms around Billy and help the man the way a loving wife struggles to support a worried husband during a difficult time. “We're going to find out, though.”
Billy continued to stare at the dead man. “Don't make a lick of sense...no sir, don't make a lick of sense at all, I tell ya.” Billy shook his head. “My daddy said things that don't make sense ain't worth worrying over...but I reckon I ain't got no choice but to worry.”
Rita quickly pushed her personal feelings for Billy aside, realizing that Billy needed a cop present and not a romantic interest, and strapped on her cop mind. “Billy, do you know what deserted town this person was referring to?” she asked.
“Only deserted town I ever been to is one way out west that my folks took us kids to when were still young enough to get our butts blistered behind the wood pile.” Billy kept his eyes low. “I reckon I was...oh...fifteen or sixteen? Somewhere down that road.”
“And you're not aware of any other deserted town?” Rita asked.
Billy shrugged his shoulders. “All the towns I've been to had life in them,” he replied and then added in a tired voice: “I reckon a town can have life but still be dead on the inside...like a town in south Georgia. Town has plenty of folks in it, plenty of life, but it's deader than a skunk laying on the side of a road.”
Rita understood what Billy meant, but decided not to dive into the pale side of living. “Okay, Billy,” she said, keeping her eyes busy, searching the apple orchard with quick scans as she talked, “can you tell me about the deserted town you visited?”
“Been a mighty long time,” Billy told Rita. He finally whipped his eyes away from the dead body, searched the apple orchard, and shook his head again. “My folks took us kids to a place out there in Nevada,” he explained. “You know, to one of them old gold mining towns and such. Have to admit it wasn't what the movies and books make it out to be, no sir. The town was dry, hotter than tarnation, and dustier than a closed down house that ain't been opened in over a hundred years. The old buildings were barely standing...windows all smashed...wasn't much for the eyes to enjoy.”
“Why did your parents take you to Nevada?” Rita asked.
Billy shrugged his shoulders. “My daddy made it a point to take us kids away from Georgia two weeks out of the year. Said we needed to see other parts of the country in order to appreciate what we have here in Clovedale Falls.” Billy looked around. “I guess folks would call what my daddy did a family vacation, but daddy called what he did teaching us kids about life.”
Rita struggled to make sense of Billy's statements. Why, she wondered, would a killer ask Billy to return to an old gold town in Nevada? The idea seemed odd, if not down right illogical. But, Rita reminded herself, the mind of a deadly killer worked under the hissing mouth of shadows rather than under a brightly lit light of truth and logic. Rita knew in order to ask the right questions she had to think like the killer—whoever the killer was. “Billy, did anyone else go on the trip with you to Nevada? Besides your parents and sister, I mean?”
Rita nodded her head. “Did you meet anyone in Nevada...in the gold mining town?”
Billy rubbed the back of his neck and pushed his mind back through the doors of time. “I reckon we might have met a lot of different kind of folks...but no one stands out as being special enough to remember.”
Rita lowered her eyes and studied the dead body. “Billy, someone killed this man and left you a note. This is very serious.”
“I reckon it as serious as walking up on a mighty cranky copper mouth snake,” Billy agreed. “I've had to kill my share of snakes and let me tell you that chore never sits well with the belly.”
Rita kept her eyes on the dead body. “This man was killed as a warning, Billy...as a way to make you obey the order left for you on the note.”
Billy shoved his hands back into the pockets of his overalls. “Billy Northfield ain't gonna go running off to some old gold mining town, if that's what you're trying to say.”
Rita turned to Billy. “Billy, whoever killed this man has proved that he...or she...is a very deadly person who is fully capable of killing again. And that person is walking around without any restrictions. And even worse, that person could be on your farm right now, mingling among the other tourists.”
“What you're saying is we're bobbing for apples with a mouth that ain't got no teeth,” Billy told Rita.
“I'm afraid so,” Rita nodded her head. She pointed to the dead body. “There lays a man who has been strangled to death, a man without any identification on his body. We don't know who is, how he's connected to the killer or you, Billy. This man could have been a random target? We won't know who he is until we run him through the system. In the meantime the killer remains at large, unseen, and in control.”
“Don't seem right does it?” Billy asked. “Don't seem right for a person to have that much pull on another person?”
“It's never right,” Rita concurred. “But right now, we have to focus on the note that was left for you. That's all we have to rely on...and hope that you come up with something.”
Billy kicked at the ground. “I already told you all I can remember. I ain't been to no other deserted town.”
Rita wanted to reach out and pat Billy's shoulder but stopped when she saw Rhonda hurrying her way with a frantic woman chasing behind her. “Nathan,” the woman cried out in sheer panic and grief, “Nathan...no!”
Rhonda slid to a stop beside Rita. The woman brushed past, ran to her husband, dropped down onto her knees, and began crying. “Found her wandering around when I left you to go to the apple house. When Jose located me and told me what was happening and gave me a description of the victim...she flipped out on me.”
Rita watched the woman grab the man’s hand. “No...Nathan...no...” she cried.
Billy eased forward, knelt down, and put a caring arm around the woman. “Ma’am I know sorry don't mean a hill of beans right now...but I swear we're going to find the skunk who killed your man and put a rope around his neck.”
Rita slowly reached into the front pocket, brought out the note left for Billy, and handed it to Rhonda. Rhonda took the note, read it, and then looked at Rita with shocked eyes. Rita nodded her head. “This isn't good, sis,” Rhonda whispered. “Billy is in deep trouble.”
“Deep trouble indeed,” a deadly voice grinned, watching the scene from far away with a pair of binoculars. “But don't worry, the fun has just begun.”
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