‘‘At least the table looks good.”
It did – everything was shiny and perfect. The other preparations were coming along, too, though there was much still to do. With luck, they would have it all ready in time.
And then: “Grrrrrr ... GRRRRR!” loud and louder!
What on earth was upsetting the dog?
“Here’s a biscuit ... What’s the matter? You don’t want it?”
The growling continued. The hair on the dog’s back stood on end as she glared at, but did not approach, the door. “Marie, I told you to put that decrepit dog to sleep months ago!,” her husband Charlie said as he hand-mashed the last batch of potatoes, splattering small clumps of warm soft spuds on his bright red suspenders. The aroma of roasting turkey and cooling pumpkin pies washed over the room, stirring everyone’s appetite. The bucolic scene in the kitchen stood in stark contrast to the rainstorm engulfing the region. A hurricane had made its way up the coast and was now taking out its fury on their part of the world. Local creeks were flooding and most of the smaller roads were covered in thick, slick mud.
The lights dimmed for a moment and then flickered as heavy rain and fierce winds rattled the windows of the 1870s farmhouse. Brilliant blue flashes of lightning lit up the room, casting shadows of the trees outside on the walls.
The farmhouse had been in the Calandra family for six generations. Its dining room was crowned by an oak-beamed ceiling over its fieldstone walls. There was a traditional 18th century French table that could seat 12 when needed. In the family room, a Bellagio fireplace was surrounded by architectural stone and capped by an ornate carved wooden mantel over a sturdy Venetian granite hearth. An oil painting encompassing three generations of Calandras hung above the fireplace and was the focal point of the room.
“Not only is she half-blind and arthritic, now she’s senile and hallucinating,” said Charlie, as he added the home-churned butter to his potatoes.
“Charlie, it sounds like your description fits you more than Sophie,” Marie said with a smile as she gently stroked the back of the large German shepherd, finally calming her down. Sophie was a 13-year-old retired police dog. The Calandras had taken her in a year ago when a close friend, a retired detective, died unexpectedly. She had some medical problems that came with her advanced years, but she was a lovable and loyal dog.
The ceilings creaked as the Calandras’ three grandchildren played hide-and-seek between the connecting closets in the upstairs bedrooms. The two boys, Jacob, 6, and Robert, 8, were pushing through dozens of shoes and dresses as they chased their younger sister, Madison, from one room to the next. Thunder occasionally boomed loud enough to shake the walls and cause the children to shriek and run downstairs for reassurance. They’d been told it was only the angels bowling, but these intense bursts of sound caused them to doubt that explanation.
“What a terrible, terrible night,” said Jennie, the Calandras’ oldest daughter, as she entered the kitchen with hair still dripping from a shower. Marie looked up from the simmering gravy she was stirring as if her total concentration on the task would block out her anxiety about the storm.
“The temperature must have dropped 20 degrees this afternoon. I don’t recall it being this cold and windy so early in the year in a long, long time. Now Jennie, where is Jack? I thought your husband would have been here by now,” she remarked.
Just as her last words echoed in the room, Sophie stood up and howled into the air before settling back down next to Charlie’s tufted black leather chair. Perhaps the storm was upsetting her. She was usually happy to sleep away the evening, rousing only for dinner or for a short walk around the property.
“The humane thing would be to put that poor dog down,” Charlie mumbled to himself while sipping from a glass of Meridian Chardonnay. Holidays always made Charlie a bit grumpy. All the formality, cleaning, cooking and requisite small talk exhausted him. Truth be known, he would be happy to be in his robe and slippers having a microwaved frozen dinner, smoking a Macanudo cigar and reading the newspaper.
“Jack will be here, Mama, don’t worry. He had a few errands to run in town. I think he was also going to help a co-worker replace a broken sump pump. The weather has probably slowed him down.”
“Well, on a night like this I’d like to see him here, with us, safe and sound. Especially with those horrible things going on around these parts,” Marie’s voice trailed off to a whisper as she recalled the recent newspaper articles and television reports.
She was referring to a series of grisly murders that had occurred over the past six months. Four entire families, killed in a most brutal manner. The police had no suspects, and the crimes appeared random and unprovoked. The only thing tying these horrible crimes together was the victims’ profile. Families seemed to be the target. The city and surrounding towns were in a panic. The last murders, just a month ago, had occurred only 20 miles from the Calandras’ remote farmhouse. There had been only one survivor, a 9-year-old girl. She could only describe a tall, muscular man with short beard and dressed in black clothes. She said he had angry eyes … eyes full of hate.
“It’s just terrible. I heard he used an ax and … I just can’t talk about this anymore. … It’s too upsetting,” Jennie said as she carefully placed the Waterford crystal glasses on the table. She then went into the kitchen to check on her cream of squash soup. Jennie hoped her husband would get here soon. She was starting to feel a little anxious, especially with her mother reminding her about those murders … those were the type of things Jennie preferred to not think about.
Just then Sophie’s hair bristled and she stared at the front door. Her ears were back and tail straight out. Her intense “Grrrrrrr” grabbed everyone’s attention. A moment later a knock on the front door broke the silence and everyone’s eyes were riveted toward the foyer.
“Who’s there?” Jennie called out. There was no answer, only a distant rumble of thunder. Sophie grew increasingly agitated as Jennie cautiously approached the door. “Who’s there?,” she said. Then finally, over the screeching wind, she heard, “It’s me honey. It’s Jack. Please open up. I’m getting soaked out here!”
Jennie quickly opened the heavy oak door. There stood her husband, unrecognizable, in a thick green parka, looking like he had just climbed out of a swimming pool. He walked toward the fireplace as Sophie cautiously approached him growling, with her upper lip shaking. Her dark brown eyes fixed on him.
“What’s the matter, it’s just me ole girl. We’ll have to get you a pair of thick glasses like Charlie’s,” Jack said, smiling as he dried his beard and hung the soaked parka on a brass hook near the fire.
“What took you so long to get here?,” Jennie asked, as Jack came back into the family room.
“Actually, I’ve been outside for a bit. I noticed one of the gutters was plugged with leaves, and water was backing up on the far side of the house. I was trying to clean it out before the roof started leaking.”
The big shepherd slinked away from Jack and moved toward the fireplace. She began growling at the coat. She sniffed and barked as if it were a wild animal that meant her harm.
“What is with her tonight?,” Jennie asked a little exasperated. “She’s been acting very strange the last half hour. I’ve never seen her worked up like this.”
Jack answered: “Maybe she doesn’t like the coat … the fur collar and all. I admit it’s awful looking, not my style at all. I borrowed it from Gavin when I saw the weather turning for the worse. I was helping him replace his sump pump.”
“I knew I didn’t recognize that old stained coat. I thought maybe you dug it out of one of the bags in the attic,” Jennie said, relieved to have Jack in the house.
“Well, I can give it back to him. He called me on my cell to say I dropped my wallet in his basement. He’s going to drop it off. Maybe he can stay for dinner. It looked like he was going to have Thanksgiving alone. I don’t know that much about him, he keeps to himself at work. I think I see his pickup parked by the barn. He should be here any minute.”
Marie’s heart suddenly sank. Her brain had been mulling on a simple thought that had only just made its way to her consciousness. Sophie wasn’t just any old police dog. She had spent her career as a cadaver dog.
Marie said nothing as she quickly left the room and frantically grabbed the phone to dial 911. Her heart almost stopped when she realized there was no dial tone. She hoped upon hope it was the storm that had caused the outage.
Then, a knock at the front door. It resonated through the house, mixing with the sound of the children running downstairs. Marie had heard a thousand knocks on that door over the years, but this one was different. It didn’t sound like flesh on wood … more like metal.