Sheriff Phillip “Trout” Hoover was troubled.
He’d been a Sheriff of Grover county, Nebraska, for over 30 years. No one, after a while, even bothered to run against him on the ballot. He was beloved by his community for the most part, and tolerated by those who might have wanted new blood. He pretty much had a guaranteed job for life.
He hadn’t had that many difficult cases in the rural farming community he served. One or two hits and runs. The usual drunk and disorderlies, the domestic violence that often came with being unemployed or too close to one of the local bars. Nothing that he couldn’t, with a little common sense and ingenuity, solve fairly quickly.
People had started going missing in Grover county. And he didn’t think it was the Rapture. No, Sheriff “Trout’ felt like there was something much more sinister in the mix.
First it was that old yahoo, Norsworthy Sanford. He wasn’t much use to anyone, let alone to his wife and family, and maybe he’d just taken off somewhere. But Norsworthy, called “Hoss” by just about everyone, a ne’er do well carpenter and sometimes plumber, had never gone anywhere. He had a fit if his wife, Hilda asked him to take her out to dinner. He’d been born in Grover county, spent most of his life there, and as far as anyone knew, had plans to die there.
But then, one day, he was just gone.
Then, there was Esther Walker. She was a cantankerous sort, to be sure. She had the nasty habit of shooting her pistol up in the air if the young uns got too close to her ratty, old, junked-up yard. She’d been arrested for making Hooch in the 30’s, before Sheriff Trout’s time, but he had figured she’d settled down since then.
Then, one day, she just wasn’t there, either.
Over the next 18 months, on a fairly regular basis, people just started turning up missing. And it wasn’t the village hard-heads, always, either. There was that nice young pastor, Jim Edmonds. One day he was preaching at the Church of God church, exhorting people to leave their lives of sin. His wife, Ella, and their six children sitting on the front pew in ecstatic agreement with him. Then, he just seemed to take a walk into no-where-ville. Gone.
Then there was that salesman fella, Randall Ziglar. He was gone a lot, anyway, so no one really figured it out for a while, but time came when folks noticed his grass in his yard was almost as high as his windows. Randall always got one of the neighbor kids to take care of it. That summer, he either forgot to ask, or was prevented from asking.
Altogether 12 people. It made Sheriff Trout want to take a Goody powder or a strong drink, whichever he could get to first. The weird thing, was no one had really noticed or commented on all these folks disappearing except him. The pastor, well, folks all missed him. And the church board sure did, because no one wanted to come to Grover Village or Grover county to preach or stay. It was just too far out in the middle of nowhere.
Something seemed to tickle Sheriff Trout’s brain, some common thread that could tie all of it together. But it just tickled and teased him. He just couldn’t figure it out.
The week that Harold Almond went out for a walk, and didn’t come back, Sheriff Trout had enough. He was going to figure out what was happening, or die trying.
That day, a Monday, appropriately enough, Sheriff Trout had spent the morning trying to calm Betty Almond, Harold’s wife. Betty was an easily frightened little thing, and it was her considered opinion that the aliens had gotten him. Didn’t folks read the newspapers at the supermarkets? It was all there, plain as day for anyone who could read. She’d seen Harold staring out at the stars a lot lately. Maybe something had been staring back.
Sheriff Trout got Betty as calm as she ever got, and walked down the sidewalk, allowing his mind to tackle the problem. As he walked, he noted the village, so familiar that he almost didn’t see it. Today, however he forced himself to pay attention. Same people, same problems, same…..
“Sheriff?” He heard the graceful, though elderly voice behind him, and for a second wondered who it was. Then, as he turned, Sheriff Trout realised. Elizabeth Duncan, the town artist and crank. Well, maybe ‘crank’ was an unkind description. She was forever wearing paint smocks and painting things that she liked to compare to a ‘surreal version of Picasso.’
Sheriff Trout thought she either had really poor eyesight or was just making a big mess. He wasn’t much for modern art, but what he saw her producing and insisting the library occasionally display with other community artists couldn’t really be called art. It was gobs of paint and color, meaningless patterns, no real rhyme or reason.
“Miss Elizabeth.” Sheriff Trout said politely.
“I want you to see my latest efforts.” She said, her weathered face seeming to crack with wrinkled excitement.
Sighing inwardly, Sheriff Trout opened up the white picket gate and went to the front room of Elizabeth’s house, which stunk with paint thinner and spilled paint. Also, a stronger smell, that seemed vaguely familiar, but one that Sheriff Trout couldn’t quite put his finger on.
He saw nothing that she had painted. Instead, he saw bags of plaster of Paris. Around him, he saw some lovely sculptures. One of a rose. Another of a tree. Then, one of the missing pastor. It was amazingly life-like.
“I wanted to do something for his church.” Elizabeth said, simply. “They all miss him so much, you know. Maybe this sculpture would be a comfort to them. What do you think?”
Sheriff Trout was humbled, and inwardly ashamed of himself. He came in expecting to see more of her usual nonsense, and saw something quite different. He looked closely at the statue of the missing pastor. Every detail perfect. It was so life-like. If one didn’t know better……..
“Why, I think that is a grand idea, Miss. Elizabeth. I’ll get Deputy Floyd over her to help me haul this over to the church.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s really that heavy…..he wasn’t….ah, that’s fine, you do that. This afternoon, perhaps?”
“Sure thing, Miss Elizabeth. And I’m sure his wife, will be grateful.”
In the next few weeks, Miss Elizabeth was quite busy. As predicted, Zell Edmonds, the disappeared pastor’s wife, was joyous at such an exact likeness of her husband. They decided to put it out in the garden where he had loved to sit. Everyone marveled at the skill in which Miss Elizabeth had reproduced the pastor.
In fact, it was downright astonishing. Even his dog, Buttercup, a prize hunter, seemed fooled. After the statue was moved to the parish garden, that fool dog wouldn’t leave it alone. He lay at its feet, and resisted if anyone tried to get him to move, even to eat.
Miss Elizabeth shyly approached Betty Almond, the wife of Harold, and asked her if she’d like a similar statue, to keep her husband’s memory alive. Betty, still convinced aliens had gotten her man, agreed. Maybe, if she put it out in the yard, the spacemen would see it, and bring her husband back. Take the statue instead. Soon, Elizabeth had so many people wanting statues, she had to start a waiting list.
First, she insisted, she wanted to pay tribute to those who were once a part of the community, but no longer were there. Somehow, she knew even the ones who had vanished months before. This surprised Sheriff Trout, then intrigued him. The disappearances had been all local, but over many months. He never thought Miss Elizabeth kept up with things like that. She was too busy producing her weird art…….
Again, that weird sense of a pattern danced around his brain. Miss Elizabeth. Her sculptures. The missing people…..
Sheriff Trout got in his Ford pickup and traveled up to Omaha right after Nelly Deiters went missing. Nelly, the town gossip and town’s sole cashier at their small grocery store, was missed. One day she went out for a walk, then just didn’t come home.
Nelly was in her late 40’s and had only a cat, Whiskers, for family. However, people missed her bubbly, and gossipy way. She didn’t seem to be the type who would just take off somewhere, and Lord knows, if a man had been involved, she would have told everyone long before she left town. It was a mystery.
Up in Omaha, there was a famous place, Joslyn Art Museum. Miss Elizabeth talked about it at some of her ‘showings’ of her paintings. She’d been there, when the Rodin exhibit had been in town for two months. There, she’d learned of the famous sculptor, and his propensity for creating such life-like work that people claimed he was using the real bodies of people, and covering them with plaster and other metals.
Such things, of course, were never proven, and the sculptor, though he died in relative poverty, was now renowned as a genius of the first order…..
Sheriff Trout, not a man of the arts, strolled around the museum. He looked at the various sculptures. He saw different styles, which he could recognise as different, but was not sure what they were called.
He saw nothing like Miss Elizabeth’s lifelike designs…..
He drove home, still pondering why there seemed to be something he should know about all of it. Something connected, something………
He got to town late, nearly midnight. He’d called his wife to let her know to go on to bed without him. He’d gotten his supper on the way home, and would turn in when he got there. No need to wait up for him.
Almost home, he passed the house/studio of Miss Elizabeth. One light, in the front room was burning. Sheriff Trout knew that artists were different, but this one was 85 years old. What could she be up to so late at night?
He silently parked his truck two houses down, and then crept up to her yard. Her gate, often squeaky, for once, didn’t make a sound. The good Sheriff was grateful. He tiptoed up to her window and looked in.
At first he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Then, something in his insides just froze. Art may have been happening, but a hellish kind, not something that he’d ever seen before or hoped to see again…..
He reached down for his service revolver. He’d left it in his truck. So he turned, and went back, and got it. Came back quietly. But this time, the gate creaked.
He tried the front door to the house. Unlocked. He spent long minutes getting the door to open just enough to permit him entrance. Once in, he could see what had horrified him before. Only, the ‘artist’, Miss Elizabeth wasn’t there, working on it anymore.
There, on a long table that had once hosted many ping-pong games, lay Nelly Deiters. Half of her was already covered in plaster of Paris. Her face, now lifeless, was not…yet.
Sheriff Trout smelled the formaldehyde. He realised that this was the other odor that he’d noticed the first day. The day that Miss Elizabeth had showed him the sculpture of the missing pastor. Now he knew.
Why the statue wouldn’t necessarily weigh so much. Why Pastor Edmond’s dog just wouldn’t leave it alone. Why.
Another smell, in the room suddenly got stronger. In the last few seconds before a cloth was yanked down hard in front of his face, and the room went black, Sheriff Trout tried to figure out what he was smelling.
Chloroform, he thought, as the cloth expertly covered his nostrils. Definitely, the smell of chloroform.
Within weeks, the library and the community of Grover were excited about how Miss Elizabeth Duncan had put Grover county on the map. Her most popular sculpture was one of the town’s beloved Sheriff, “Trout” Hoover. Folks all commented how lifelike it was. It was amazing how after years of failed art-making with painting, Miss Elizabeth finally had come into her own, at age 85, as a sculptor.
Even the museum up in Omaha, was talking about displaying her work there. Newspapers from everywhere were covering the story, comparing her to a modern-day Grandma Moses.
She humbly stated that the great sculptor, Auguste Rodin had been her inspiration. He, like she, had been terribly near-sighted, and had turned to sculpture as a second attempt to share the art in his soul. Like her, his sculptures were so life-life that people almost swore they were the people themselves.
People wanted to tell the Sheriff to come see his likeness at the art show. They would have liked to.
Problem was, he’d gone missing four weeks before.