In 1939 the body of a young woman is discovered in an abandoned opera house. At first, no one is seems to know who she is. Something about the dead woman—something from his childhood—haunts Lieutenant Yale Lockhart. As he delves into long held secrets surrounding the crime, the first person to discover the identity of the victim is also murdered. Unerringly the shadow of both murders spreads across the little community, threatening to bring harm even to those closest to Lockhart.
Red Oak, Iowa —June 7, 1912
The morning sun warmed that day in early June in Red Oak, Iowa, as summer reached out to embrace the land. The earth smelled sweet with moisture from the rain that had fallen overnight. It felt more like summer with the heat coming so early in the day, and the humidity so thick everything felt damp to the touch. The town square stirred to wakefulness with the activity of a new day; people hurried to their places of business.
No one paid any attention to the young woman sitting alone on one of the park benches. They had their own lives to think about, just as she had hers. If they had been asked later if they remembered seeing her, no one would have been able to recall noticing her that day.
She didn’t really notice them either.
Millie Peterson anticipated the life she desired. A tingle of excitement sent a gentle quiver through her as she thought about her plans for the day. At last, everything would come together. Finally, she could stop creeping about corners, and make her greatest joy public and really come alive.
There were some lose ends to deal with first. Millie needed to make up with her best friend. Ashamed of herself as she remembered their harsh words, Millie didn’t know how she would be received after so many insensitive and callous utterances. She put her thoughts and apologies in writing so that when they met, if she was not well received, she could offer the letter as a small gesture of reconciliation.
Millie let her mind wander; daydreaming her teacher called it when she was in high school. She graduated a number of years ago, and didn’t have to worry about getting caught daydreaming any more. She thought about him and allowed a whisper of a smile play at her lips.
She liked to think about him. Her eyes wandered to the old Rynearson Opera Hall that closed a few years ago. The new Beardsley Theater had opened with great fanfare and excitement. With everything fresh and up-to-date, it was a beautiful theater. She’d been there many times, but she missed the old hall. Maybe because of the myriad of pleasant memories she had of the place. Since the Rynearson was so old—well over thirty-five years—Mr. Beardsley, the manager, convinced the City Fathers that renovations would be too expensive. He informed them that it would be less costly to build a new theater. When the Beardsley Theater was completed, they simply closed the doors of the Rynearson Opera House.
Her eyes wandered over the tall, graceful windows of the second floor where the opera house had thrived in its day. The windows were especially tall so as to complement the high ceiling of the theatrical space and the stage with its beautiful proscenium arch, fancy drop curtains, main floor and balcony seats.
She loved the theater with the bright banners, the fancy stenciling on the walls and the ceiling painted in bright colors of blue, pink, peach, red and yellow. Her parents had danced there Christmas night as the nation celebrated one hundred years when the hall was new in 1876. The Rynearson Opera House, a comfortable, familiar place held so many wonderful memories for her. Like so many opera halls, there were shops on the first floor and the theater and more shops and offices were on the second floor.
Her thoughts wandered back to him and she took in a deep breath of the warm, humid air, letting it out slowly.
She had seen him first in that old Rynearson Opera Hall when she was only a senior in high school. Millie had been in the balcony with some of her classmates and he’d come in with some of his friends, laughing boisterously as some girl blushed. Then all the boys laughed even louder. Millie couldn’t hear what he’d said, but she knew it must have been risqué. He was considered to be a little wild, but that was also what made him so attractive. He was the best-looking boy in Red Oak, or maybe the whole of Montgomery County.
That particular night, he’d turned and looked up into the balcony where she sat. She thought he’d seen her, that their eyes met and he smiled at her.
He looked so dashing in his new suit, tailored to taper just right about his figure. His thick, black hair, with a soft wave and an unruly curl flopped carelessly onto his forehead so that she wanted to brush it back into place for him.
She fantasized about him often, but never thought they’d have a chance of seeing one another again. Later they had a chance meeting at a party given for his sister. She steeled her nerves and approached him. Encouraged by his smile she spoke to him, her voice caught in her throat.
“I don’t know if you remember me at all,” she felt the color rise to her cheeks as she greeted him. “We met before.”
“We have?” He leaned closer to her and looked intently into her eyes.
“It was at the Rynearson one evening. Eddy Foy was the mainliner.” Millie gazed into his eyes, smitten all over again. “You smiled at me. I was in the balcony.”
“You must be mistaken.” He took her hand in his. “How could I have smiled at you and not remember? I wonder how I could’ve missed seeing the prettiest girl in the theater that day.”
His words made her heart flutter.
He flirted with her for a while, before his friends proclaimed that they were tired of babysitting his little sister and they wanted to see some real women. With a shrug of his shoulders he was gone.
They had begun to see one another accidentally.
In reality, she’d tried to be anywhere he was supposed to be and, accidentally, just happen to see him. He didn’t seem to mind seeing her here and there. In fact he gave the impression that he liked their chance encounters. Sometimes he would walk with her, talking about things he was doing.
It was one of these evenings, walking home together that he had first sung a silly old ditty to her that had been popular in 1909 before stealing his first kiss from her.
Come, come and make eyes at me
Under the Anheuser Bush.
Come, come and let me hold your hand
Under the Anheuser Bush.
At least those were all of the words he chose to sing to her. He’d been singing and circling about her as they walked along, she pretended that she wasn’t interested. All the time her heart was about to burst because he flirted so openly with her. He circled in and kissed her on the mouth, before he danced off whistling that tune again.
She had inhaled sharply and regretted that she had not been more aware of what was coming, that his lips would seek hers, for the briefest second they would combine. She lamented that she couldn’t have kissed him back. Millie wanted to let him know that she hadn’t objected at all. Every time she thought about that kiss, a sweet chill of joy electrified her being. She relished the sensation.
It was the first time she had ever been kissed. She knew that stolen kisses were not quite the same as two people coming together to share that rare but sweet intimacy. A kiss between two unmarried people happened to be an important step. She didn’t know any other girls who had been kissed, not really. Siblings, cousins and parents didn’t count.
It made her wonder what he intended. Did he care for her? Did that kiss mean what she hoped it did? Did he have serious intentions? Would it mean their forming an attachment, with their engagement soon follow? Or was he just a cad who took freely from innocent young women without a care for them at all?
She hoped he really cared. If he did feel something for her, he’d probably see her again, and they might begin a courtship. Even if he did put things out of order, stealing a kiss before he had declared his intentions.
She wouldn’t trade that kiss for anything.
Shortly after that stolen kiss, they had started seeing one another. He told her that he needed to keep their friendship a secret for a while. He’d let her know when they could go public with their mutual affections; then when they let the others know, what a laugh they could have at their friends’ expense. He knew she’d understand as he explained that his father wanted him to align himself with some girl he didn’t really like. She was from a family his father wanted to be related to by marriage. He would have to be seen with her here and there to keep his father satisfied, but as soon as he could break free of that woman, they could let everyone know that Millie was the woman that he truly loved.
She kept his secret.
She looked at the watch she wore on her lapel of her bodice.
The courthouse clock tower chimed out the hour. It was time.
He planned to meet her upstairs in the abandoned Rynearson Opera House. It had been their special trysting place for the last few months. Her heart pounded in her breast as she rose from the bench in the park in the square and walked to the old theater, her eyes fixed on the second floor windows.
No one was about at the moment. She had always been careful to be sure they were not seen sneaking into the building. After all, it had been closed for years and no one ever went up there. The door to the second floor creaked from disuse as she let herself in and slipped quietly up the stairs.
He would be there waiting for her.
* * *
Their meeting had not gone as she had hoped.
Millie thought he had loved her.
Isn’t that what he’d said? Aren’t those the words he used when she finally relented and surrendered her virtue to him? Isn’t that what he whispered in her ear each successive time after that when he took her in his arms and pressed her down onto the old fainting couch in one of the old abandoned offices where they met? He’d even spoken of their wedding day. She hadn’t imagined it.
A tear formed in the corner of her eye.
There was a new film she had wanted to see: Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She read the book years ago, but never believed that someone could be two different persons in one. When she told him today about the change in her situation, with her body, she’d seen that transformation for herself.
He’d always been so loving, so playful and full of kisses, and then with the few words she spoke to him, a look transformed his handsome features into the mask of a fearful monster. It chilled her to the bone. She didn’t know who he was any more.
His rage frightened her.
That’s when it happened. There had been a letter opener on the desk.
She hardly felt it pierce her flesh.
He ran away, leaving her there. She heard his hasty footfalls going down the stairs, and the door close behind him and the sound of the bolt being thrown as he locked the door. He left her there on the floor with no one to stem the flow of blood from her side.
The dark, oozing liquid spread; she was powerless to stop it. She tentatively dipped her finger into its murkiness. It surprised her how warm it felt. She traced his initials on the dusty floorboard with the deep red, viscous liquid that had passed through her heart. Her broken heart.
She wrote his initials in the dust with her blood, to leave a clue as she felt her life slipping away. They needed to know who she loved. They needed to know who had lied to her, deceiving her at every turning. They needed to know who thrust the knife into her so that her life’s blood pooled about her as her senses faded.
In case . . .
She closed her eyes, her breathing shallow.
She thought she heard her mother’s voice calling to her. She wanted to answer, but had no more strength left.
She felt herself begin to spread beyond the confines of her physical body like a mist that hovers above the water when it is warmer than the air. The mist curled up and away from the floor and she became that mist.
Her heart continued to beat for a few moments after her breath had ceased.
Her blood pooled about her enveloping what she had written in the dust.
S. M. Senden was raised in Winnetka, a north shore suburb of Chicago. From an early age reading and writing were passions as was travel. Senden has studied, lived and worked in the USA, Europe, the Mid-East and Africa, spending a number of years as an archaeological illustrator for various expeditions. S. M. Senden earned a Masters Degree and has studied creative writing, play writing and screenwriting.
S. M. Senden currently resides in the greater Omaha metro area and is working on another historical mystery, as well as a modern day series involving forensic artist, Dr. Kate Ashton.