The Wampler Inn was a dusty old farmers’ bar that had been around since the late 1800’s. All the wealthy old-timers hung out there and played cards in the evenings and drank bad bourbon. Handley himself had even sat in on a few occasions right after his wife had passed away and found it to be therapeutic for a while. Nobody used big words or asked “deep” questions so there was a safe feeling there for him. The crew he played with was a pretty tight clique and he got the impression they were only letting him in because he was the sheriff and not because he was one of the “guys”. Handley didn’t even get the feeling they were sympathetic to his loss - they were just a bunch of tight-lipped, gambling curmudgeons who pretty much ran the county because of their wealth. After a couple of weekends, however, Handley bailed on the card games because he was getting the creeps from these guys. He felt like he was in the way and holding up the real game they all wanted to play and the uncomfortable chit-chat and leers were getting to be too much. Jimmy Togg was one of the regular players and even he was acting strange when Handley was there.
“Yeah, he was here Thursday night,” reported Stan, the Wampler’s bartender. “I guess it was around seven or so. I want to say he left at about one, maybe one-thirty. There was a pretty big game that night so we stayed open a little longer. Pretty sure Togg went home a winner, too.”
“What kind of shape was Togg in, Stan?” asked Dodd. “Was he boozing pretty heavy or no?”
“I think he had a couple but nothing crazy. Nobody was hitting it too hard that night. They were all into this game they were playing and I really wasn’t paying too much attention. They play in the back room, you know that Sheriff, so I’m not watching every move that’s going on in there. They just come in every Friday evening for a pretty serious and regular game. I just stay out of the way and pour them drinks when they come over to me. Hellavu bad deal for Jimmy yesterday. What else can I do to help you out?”
“That’s all, Stan. So he wasn’t wobbling out of here, then? You’re sure of that?”
“Yeah, he was fine”. Stan grabbed Dodd’s arm in a sudden revelation. “Ok, now I get it. You guys think Jimmy went home drunk and killed his wife and daughter? Wow. I can tell you that he was not drunk. No way, I would’ve known since I’ve seen a few drunks in my day.”
“We’re just checking everything out. That’s all and do not mention this to anyone. Do you understand, Stan? Nobody”, commanded Handley.
The group of six men sat in the middle of the barn in silence. The five hundred year old, round oak table connected them as it had done so many times in the past. Their wealth was born from evil and was as ancient as the table they now shared. Hundreds of years and generations of secrecy had strengthened their shroud and matured the power they invisibly wielded. The sacrifices were many and all were unnoticed. These men had the power to hypnotize others into complacency with their control of local events and media. They manipulated the local citizenry as if herding sheep and were the puppet masters of this corner of the world. Now they had erred. They had become visible if only through the end result of the publicized murders. Still faceless yet no longer undetected, the group gathered to decide their next move.
In the corner of the barn was a cage. A large hanging bird cage that was six feet in height. Inside of the cage was a man. This man was bound, gagged and bleeding from his ears and nostrils. He was petrified by fear and his breathing was labored and erratic. He knew that he would be dead by the end of this day.
The lab reports would take at least twenty-four hours and Handley was too itchy to wait around for their official findings. He and Dodd took a ride to the station where Officer Jesse Polk was filling out paperwork from her visit to the Togg farm the previous day. She looked angry and cold, wearing a heavy gray sweater over her uniform. A cup of steaming coffee was to one side of the keyboard she was pounding on. Handley and Dodd approached with caution as if navigating shallow waters. They both thought she was more man than woman and maybe more shark than man.
“Hey, Jess”, whispered Handley as if he were talking to his superior. “Anything new on the Togg situation?”
“No, Skip. Just filling in whatever blanks I can right now.” She was unfazed by the two men’s presence. “I’m going out there again in about an hour to re-do Togg’s story with him. Should I haul him down here if I don’t like what I hear?”
“Nah, let him hang around for a while yet. He may be more useful to us that way if we keep a tab on him.”
“You sure?” asked Jesse in a way that suggested she was thinking that Handley might be playing it a little soft for his longtime friend.
“Yes, Jess. I am very sure”, replied Handley quickly. He wanted her to know that he was on to her suspicion.
“What do you think about Togg’s story Jesse”, asked Dodd from the doorway.
“It’s vague enough to be true but it’s like he knows something and just can’t put his finger on it or he can’t remember what he wants to say. A little weird is what I think. I’m going to work him over a little harder today. Really poke him for details. I want to know what his socks smelled like at the end of the day. That kind of ****.” She never even turned to look at Dodd when she answered him. Her pointy red nose tilted to the air a bit as if on to a good scent.