The screen door opened before the sheriff’s foot even hit the floor. Somewhere in the house, a dog barked.
“Sheriff Nicholls,” Mrs Trotter nodded. She was thin, sunburned lines etched into her face.
“Good afternoon Mrs Trotter.” He made a small wave with one hand and got out of the car.
“What can I do for you today?” she asked, nervously knotting the tea towel she was holding. “Jethro got himself into trouble at college again?”
The sheriff shook his head. “I’m just checking round all the locality, Mrs Trotter,” he explained. “We’ve got a couple of teenagers didn’t make it home last night.”
“Come on in,” she beckoned. “I’ve just made some ice tea, you look like you could use some.”
Nicholls looked at his watch: half past four. A long time since lunch. He nodded, closed the car door and walked over to the house.
“Lance!” she shouted. “Sheriff’s here!”
“Come in, sheriff,” came a voice from inside.
Nicholls had never been inside the farm house before. It was light, and airy, despite a distinctly antiquated feeling. The main room, where the old man was sitting, looked like a museum recreation of a farmhouse front room a hundred years ago, except for the old television in the corner. Nicholls wondered if the old think still worked, or whether they just never got round to throwing it out.
The man was seated in the chair, one arm in a sling. The sheriff shook his free hand, and he gestured to the chair opposite. Like his wife, the weather and hard work had taken its toll on him, aged him beyond his years. But behind the eyes, he was alert.
“I saw you looking at the TV,” he said. “Yeah, it still works, before you ask.”
“No thoughts of getting a new one then?”
The farmer giggled and shook his head. “Don’t watch it that often. Too much to do.” He settled himself back in his chair.
“What happened to your arm?” the sheriff asked, idly.
“He fell,” Maud started walking to the kitchen. “Don’t ask him how, because he’ll probably tell you and then the pair of you will be there for the rest of the day.”
“Oh Maud thinks I talk too much,” the old man chuckled, turning to the sheriff. “But well, what is there to do? And the pigs don’t complain.”
Maud returned from the kitchen with three large glasses of ice tea on a tray. She placed coasters on the table and set drinks in front of everyone without saying a word, then returned to the kitchen with the tray.
“So what brings you here, sheriff?” Trotter asked.
“Well, it’s just routine really,” the sheriff explained. “We had a couple of teenagers go missing last night -”
“Last night?” Trotter, reaching over for his ice tea, raised his eyebrows. “I thought you had to wait twenty-four hours to file a missing persons report?”
Nicholls picked up his own glass and shook his head. “A common misconception, that. Hollywood, I’m afraid.”
“You mean not everything I’ve seen in a movie is authentic? I’m shocked I tell you.”
The farmer smiled at his own joke. Maud, returning from the kitchen, sat down on the small sofa beside her husband and smoothed down her skirt. The ice tea was cold and sweet. Nicholls drank it, greedily, surprised at how thirsty he seemed.
“So what happened with these kids?” she asked, leaning a head on one side. Outside, the dog started barking again.
“Well, we’re not really sure yet.” Nicholls took another sip of the ice tea. “They were basically going to run some errands in one of the parents’ cars, then – disappeared.”
The sheriff nodded. “Their car was found by the side of the road. It looks like they had a blowout.”
“They replaced the tyre?”
“No no,” The sheriff shook his head. “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?”
“I haven’t been working outside today,” the farmer said, pointing at his arm in a sling.
“He likes it a bit stuffy when he’s indoors,” Maud rolled her eyes. “And I always prefer the fresh air.”
“Indeed you do,” he chuckled. “But go on sheriff, they had a blowout, but they didn’t replace the tyre?”
“That’s it,” the sheriff said. “Yes. They didn’t replace the tyre because it was – there wasn’t a spare I mean. It was used up. So they had a walk, we think, they walked somewhere.”
“Where did they go?” Maud asked.
“I’m not sure, yet,” the sheriff replied. “Is it hot in here, did you say?”
The back door slammed open.
“It’s hot, yes,” the farmer said.
“Well look, if you’ve seen them, or you know, they come here, or they came here…” something seemed to strike Nicholls and he blinked his eyes and shook his head and as though trying to clear his thoughts. “Did you see them, last night?”
“Last night?” Trotter furrowed his brows and turned to face his wife. “Did we have any visitors last night, Maud?”
She shook her head. “We did not, Lance.”
“That’s then… ok then,” the sheriff said.
Nicholls felt something brush against his leg and looked over. A large grey dog settled on the floor, looked at him, and wagged its tail.
“Hey pooch. What you got there?” He scrunched his eyes to try and get his vision in focus. In his peripheral vision he noticed Maud get up and head for the kitchen. The thing the dog was chewing, whatever it was, looked very familiar, but he just couldn’t quite place it.
“You were saying, sheriff?”
Nicholls looked up, surprised to find it difficult to focus on the old man.
“I was?” He blinked again, trying to clear the fog in his head. “Yes, of course. The visitors. You didn’t have visitors last night.”
“That’s right, sheriff. No visitors.”
He looked down again at the dog.
“Is that… your dog… what it’s holding, is it?”
Nicholls looked up again. The farmer was smiling. His wife came back from the kitchen. She was carrying a plastic bag and sticky tape.
“Best this way, sheriff, really,” she said. “Give it a minute or two for the muscle relaxant to kick in, you won’t be able to resist like the others.”
“Near busted my arm, last night, one of ’em,” the old man grunted.
Nicholls looked down again, finding it difficult to take things in. He wanted to run, but his feet didn’t respond. Everything seemed… jumbled up, somehow.
The dog looked up at him. It wasn’t a bone he was chewing, Nicholls realised, although it was far too late to do anything about that now. It was a human foot.
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