Excerpt from Murder & Sullivan:
There is beauty in the bellow of the blast, There is grandeur in the growling of
Joan Spencer was on foot when the siren went off.
In the morning, eyeing thunderclouds, she had considered driving to work, but risked carrying an umbrella instead. She walked between home and her job as director of the Oliver,Indiana Senior Citizens' Center even on days as hot as this one, both for her body's sake and for the peaceful time it gave her at the beginning and end of the day.
Henry Putnam, short, bent, and white-headed, waved from his rose garden next door. Waving back, Joan inhaled his early June roses. She understood why people driving down their street crawled past Henry's corner.
It was hard to believe that Henry had lived in his new house only three years--just over a year longer than she'd lived in her old one. Of course, he'd spent about seventy years in Oliver, where Joan was only beginning to feel at home. She knew she would never be considered an old-timer, not even if she spent the rest of her life here.
"How are you, Henry?" she called, as she always did.
"Can't complain," he called back, as usual. A widower, Henry lived alone, except for his constant companion, a mud-colored hound of uncertain ancestry. The first fall and winter, she hadn't known him except to see him on the street with the dog. Last summer, though, he had begun appearing at her backdoor in his overalls to bring her wonderfully fragrant roses--Crimson Glory, her old favorite; Scentifolia, which Henry called an antique rose; hybrid teas such as Mr. Lincoln and Perfume Delight; and unnamed hybrids he was developing himself. He would never come into the house, but he and Andrew, Joan's eighteen-year-old son, sat out on the back steps swapping stories. And when winter returned, Andrew walked Henry's dog on days too icy to risk old bones.
Joan greeted other neighbors in the blocks between her house and the wooded park that ran through the little town. She'd learned how to direct newcomers around the park at the beginning of the Oliver College year, but she herself took pleasure in cutting through it on foot and thanked the early citizens of Oliver who had preserved this amazing 40-acre stand of southern Indiana trees with the creek that delighted children. Once she reached the far side of the park, she was only four blocks from the courthouse square--Oliver's "downtown"--and the Senior Citizens' Center.
Work was peaceful, as it turned out; only a few old regulars showed up. Of those who came, some ignored the weather and others couldn't stay away from the window.
"Gonna be a toad-strangler and a gully-washer," old Annie Jordan predicted, knitting furiously while she monitored the sky.
"We'll be all right, Annie," Joan said, but she could have kicked herself for not driving today.
Only Margaret Duffy and Alvin Hannauer came for the two- o'clock meeting of the board of directors, which Alvin chaired. A retired anthropology professor, Alvin had worked with Joan's father during a long-ago sabbatical spent in Oliver. Margaret, Joan's sixth-grade teacher that year, had told her about the vacant director's job when she'd come back to stay and rejoiced with her when she got it. Joan appreciated them both for their good humor and calm.
"I'm just as glad to go home early," Margaret said. "The others had more common sense than we did, coming out today."
"Want me to schedule a rain date?" Joan asked.
"No," Alvin said. "We didn't have anything on the agenda that can't wait for next month. Come on, Margaret. I'll drive you."
By the time the center closed at five, the threatening clouds had produced only intermittent drizzle and occasional sprinkles. Joan checked the windows, locked up, and started for home. A soft rain began, pleasantly cool on her face at first, but then heavy enough to make her put up her umbrella.
Marching along in barefoot sandals designed for a gentler pace, she watched the sky turn dark, and then an eerie greenish- yellow. It was still hours before real dusk, but the birds began twittering. At the edge of the park, sudden wind whipped her cotton skirt around her legs, tore at her long hair, and jerked the umbrella from her hands. She chased it into the park, but lost it in the trees.
The rain stopped as abruptly as it had started, and the wind died.
That's better, Joan thought, but she picked up her pace anyway. She had just crossed the sycamore-edged creek that meandered through the middle of the park when the siren rose from nothing to blast her ears. She'd heard it before, on a sunny Friday noon back in March--after explanations on the radio and in the paper, so that no one would worry when it was tested. Hoosiers took their tornadoes seriously, she knew. Back in sixth grade, Margaret Duffy had taught them what to do if they were ever caught outdoors in one.
They wouldn't test the siren on a day like this, she thought. This is a warning! Knowing she wasn't quite halfway home, she started running.
When she saw the funnel dip down out of the darkest cloud, a part of her recognized real danger; the rest of her didn't want to miss a thing. It was moving toward her, and she looked around for the closest shelter. The nearest house stood at the top of a hill on the edge of the park, an impossible distance, she was sure--even if the top of a hill were safe in a tornado. A ditch, that's what she needed. Or the creekbed.
The wind rose again, this time with a vengeance. Sticks and little branches swirled around her, mixed with sand from the playground and scary, twisted things. Frozen, afraid to go forward or turn back, Joan spotted the child--a little girl of three or four with Alice-in-Wonderland hair, bare feet, pink shorts, and a pink tank top. She was leaning into the wind, her hair streaming out behind her. Joan could see her mouth crying "Mama! Mama!" but the siren drowned her out.
No point in calling to her. And no time. Joan ran to her, scooped her up, and carried her to the creek.
"It's all right!" she screamed. "We're going to be all right!" The wind tore the words from her mouth--she couldn't tell whether the child could hear her, much less believe her, but the little arms had a stranglehold around her neck.
Don't panic. Don't scare her even more.
"Here we go! Hang on!" With the little girl clinging frantically to her, she dropped to the ground and slid backward down the muddy bank into the creek, all the while watching the funnel cloud reach the ground and advance. A line of beech and shagbark hickories toppled toward the sycamores. Then it was too dark to see anything, and the siren was wiped out by an even louder sound.
It really is like a freight train, Joan thought in amazement. Just the way they always said.
At what felt like the last possible moment, she threw herself down over the little body in the creekbed.
Even before the first siren, the Oliver Police Department began moving all staff and citizens to the weight room in the basement of the old limestone building. Officers and civilian staff members matter-of-factly started down, but Detective Lieutenant Fred Lundquist wasn't surprised to see some of the citizens doing business at the station resist the move.
"I'm a busy man," objected Paul Litten, president of the First Oliver Savings Bank, who had been reporting the theft of some jewelry from his home. "I'll come back tomorrow."
"Sorry, Paul," said Detective Sergeant Johnny Ketcham, who had been typing Litten's particulars into his computer. "We can't let you go." He pulled a paper form out of his desk drawer and picked up a pen. "But we don't have to waste your time. Let's finish this job downstairs."
Exchanging glances with his sergeant, Fred smiled. Ketcham wasn't thrown by officious, self-important types. He'd probably gone to school with this one. Like Fred, Ketcham was pushing fifty, but Ketcham was a graying Hoosier who had grown up in Oliver, not a blond Swede from northern Illinois. Both men kept themselves in excellent physical condition, in part by taking advantage of the equipment in the basement.
At first, peace reigned down in the weight room. Ketcham and the bank president soon droned quietly in a corner. An old couple who'd come in to apply for a private parking sign in front of their house held hands. A mother kept a tight hold on her four-year-old son, who had wandered away from home and been brought in by one of the younger uniformed officers.
Having grown up in the Midwest, Fred knew tornado warnings meant business, even though the odds were good that any particular twister would pass them by. The solid station house wasn't in the danger faced by mobile homes and even relatively sturdy frame buildings. But policy was policy in public places throughout Oliver.
Over at the hospital, all the visitors and ambulatory patients would have been herded down into the basement-level cafeteria. Bedridden patients would be lined up in corridors, with doors closed between them and flying glass. And emergency room staff would be preparing for casualties.
Thank God, he thought, the kids would be home from school by now. The new Alcorn County Consolidated School building was all on one floor, and school buses were particularly vulnerable.
The police units already out on the street would be trying to spot the tornado and would be ready to respond to emergency calls--trees across the road, power lines down, injuries, doctors and nurses needing transportation. Other requests could wait.
Once Captain Warren Altschuler unlocked the basement radio console and moved the command post to safety, the people in the weight room could hear what was going on outside, and tension mounted. The little boy was tuning up to cry until a young man wearing an Oliver College T-shirt lifted him onto an exercise bike and showed him how to stand on the pedals to ride it.
Fred listened to the tornado spotters with growing concern. Finally the crackly voice of a man attempting to stay calm yelled into the radio. "It's a bad one! Passed over downtown, but touched down in the middle of the park and in the neighborhood on
the other side. Looks like it hit a bunch of houses. Trees and lines down all over Prospect."
Joan's neighborhood, Fred thought. He checked his watch. She ought to be home by now--if she drove. But she likes to cut through the park on foot. And I'm stuck here. Damn!
Altschuler's voice cut into his thoughts. "Better call in the off-duty people."
"Yessir," Fred said, and began making notes as they agreed on how to assign the work that needed to be done. He and Altschuler worked well together. First, and most urgently, Oliver's small force would function as an adjunct ambulance service for all the injured who needed transport to a doctor or the hospital, but who didn't need a stretcher or the services of an EMT on the way. Outside help would arrive before long, but right now they were on their own.
From siren to siren felt like an eternity.
When the all-clear finally sounded, the switchboard looked like an old man's birthday cake. Fred took the stairs to his office two at a time and began handling nonstop calls that ranged from real emergencies to anything but.
"No, ma'am," he said as politely as he could to one caller. "I can't assign an officer to bring you a pack of cigarettes."
"But I'm all out," the husky voice wailed. He cut her off.
"No, sir," he said, feeling like a broken record. "We can't deliver a bottle of whiskey to you. Try the liquor store."
"I did. They won't come." This voice was already slurred. "I'm going to report you to the police!"
How can these people clog up the 911 line? Fred asked himself for the nth time, leaned back in his old wooden swivel chair, and reached for the next call.
"Lieutenant, it's old Mrs. Snarr," said the dispatcher in his ear. "I tried to calm her down, but she insists on talking to you."
"Put her on." Bud Snarr owned the local funeral home. His mother spent too much time alone and comforted herself by calling the police at least once a day to talk at length about every worry that crossed her mind. But that didn't mean she didn't have a real one this time. "Lieutenant Lundquist," he said into the telephone.
"Oh, Lieutenant, I'm so glad it's you," she fluttered. "Those young people mean well, but they don't really understand, not the way you do."
Yes, dear, he wanted to say--she was a sweet old lady. But not today. "Mrs. Snarr, do you have an emergency?" he asked firmly.
"I certainly do! You know that new roof I had Virgil Shoals put on my house last spring?" She waited for him to answer.
"Well, you'll never believe this, but it blew right off today! A little wind, and it's gone! I want you to arrest him. I paid plenty for that roof."
"Mrs. Snarr, that was no little wind--that was a tornado. Didn't you hear the sirens?" He jotted down her address from memory. A neighborhood the tornado spotters hadn't mentioned yet.
"I certainly did! Isn't there a law against that kind of noise in town?"
"No, ma'am. Not when it's warning people to take shelter. I'm sorry, but we can't arrest Mr. Shoals. If you like, you can come in tomorrow and file a complaint."
"Well, I never! My roof is gone, and that's all you can say?"
"No, ma'am. I'd advise you to call your insurance company. They'll probably pay to have a new roof put on."
"They will? Are you sure?"
"If you have tornado insurance, yes, ma'am."
"Well, thank you, Lieutenant. I knew you'd understand."
The first time he sent an officer to Joan's neighborhood to check downed power wires, he asked the man to check in on her for him.
"Sure, Lieutenant. And you won't mind if I swing by to check on my wife?"
"Go on--you'd do it anyway. Thanks."
But the man didn't find her.
"There was a young fellow looking over the damage to her house, but he said he hadn't seen her. Sorry, Lieutenant."
"Her son?" He'd grown fond of Andrew.
"I didn't ask--just about the lady."
At least the house was still there. Fred thanked him and sent him to a mobile home that had sustained substantial damage.
He promised himself that he'd call Joan right after the next crank call he handled.
They stopped as if by magic.
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