30 Dec A TWISTED BEND IN THE RIVER: A Story of Murder in a Small Town PART II
A TWISTED BEND IN THE RIVER
A Story of Murder in a Small Town
Excitement doesn’t last long in Eminence, before long time starts to slow and the quiet peace that is the norm settles in. It was the 3rd day of March, and B.B. Shedd was sitting in his regular booth at the Diner, sipping his coffee, black; and waiting for his eggs, over easy; bacon, extra crispy; and side of raisin bread, toasted. It was when he looked up from his copy of the Shannon County Current newspaper, that he noticed the sign in the front window of Kroeger’s Variety Store. CLOSED FOR TODAY, the sign read.
Shedd recalled that yesterday he had stopped into see the Kroegers. Mrs. Kroeger was not present and he remembered that Fred had said she was ill, but was strangely vague about the woman’s condition. Shedd turned in his seat and said to a man sitting at the counter, “Business must be right good, or right bad, for Kroeger to close up on a Wednesday morning.”
The other man chuckled. “When the cats are away, the kitten will play.” The man went on, “Fred Kroeger and his wife took out early this morning for St. Louis and left Betty Jane to mind the store. Well, lookin’ like she took out on her own.” He took a puff from his cigarette and then said almost reflectively, “Can’t blame her, I reckon. Small town like this must be dull for a pretty young girl after life in the city.”
Shedd could understand that. He had served a couple years as a police officer on the Granite City, Illinois police force in the East St. Louis metropolitan area. But his interest was more on what the man said about the elder Kroegers. It didn’t make any sense that they would just leave at once like that.
“Betty Jane said her folks be back tonight or in the morning,” the man said, and then returned to his breakfast.
But Fred and Minnie Kroeger did not return that night, and when Shedd took his place at the diner the next day he couldn’t help but stare at the sign that remained hanging in the store window. Shedd tried to tell himself that if anything happened to Mrs. Kroeger, Betty Jane would surely know about it. Or would she? Unsatisfied he walked down the hill and past the four-room stucco cottage where the Kroeger family lived, a block north of the store. He found nothing but locked doors and closed blinds.
He next went to the filling station where he had last seen the Kroeger’s car being repaired. He inquired of the station manager and learned that Mr. and Mrs. Kroeger had left town without claiming the sedan. The manager then told Shedd, “Betty Jane picked it up yesterday. Said her daddy wanted her to meet him in St. Louis with it.”
Shedd next went to the bus station and inquired about the Kroegers. He learned that Fred Kroeger had not boarded a bus or even bought tickets. This whole thing was getting stranger and stranger and without anymore leads to follow, or some idea what he was trying to follow, Shedd decided that he would remain downtown that evening at the diner and stake out the variety store. He smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee, never taking his eyes off the store, as the sun set and the dark night began to roll in across the quiet river valley.
Shedd’s patience finally paid off when he saw headlights come around the corner and a taxicab pull up in front of the Kroeger Variety Store. He watched as Betty Jane Kroeger got out of the vehicle. With the help of the cab driver she began to unload several bags from the cab. They appeared to be shopping bags and each had a different logo that Shedd recognized as department stores in St. Louis. Next, Shedd watched as the driver opened the trunk and removed what appeared to be two gas cans. The cans appeared to be full by the way the driver strained to lift them from the trunk. The driver helped Betty Jane get all of her parcels inside the store, and then she turned to pay the man from what appeared to be a large amount of cash from her pocketbook. She must have tipped the driver handsomely, he tipped his cap and hurried to get back into car and drive away.
Shedd stood and walked out the door of the café and toward the store. Thoughts were rapidly firing in his head. Why was Betty Jane alone? Why did she take an expensive cab ride from Salem instead of the bus? Why did she purchase gasoline and bring it here?
Betty Jane appeared to be still arranging her parcels when Shedd rapped on the store door. Betty Jane turned, at first, she appeared startled, but when she saw the lawman through the window on the door, she smiled brightly and strode across the store.
“Why Mr. Shedd,” Betty Jane seemed to almost squeal, as she opened the door. “Please come in. Can I get you some hot chocolate?”
“That’d be just fine, Betty Jane,” Shedd responded.
She appeared to be in high spirits. Shedd took a seat on one of the stools at the soda fountain, and watched Betty Jane. She started the water to heat on the electric grill at the back of the fountain, stuffed a half a dozen nickels into the jukebox, then carried an armload of the parcels to the bar near where Shedd was sitting.
“I wanna show you what Daddy bought me in St. Louis,” she bubbled. With that Betty Jane began to pull one item after another from the bags with the St. Louis department store logos and laid them out before Shedd. She pulled out one velvet party dress for which she could have no possible use for in a town of 600 souls.
“Shedd took it all in, and when she was finished, he whistled and said, “That must have set him back plenty.”
“More than two hundred dollars!” Betty Jane squealed with excitement.
For a man with a heavy mortgage hanging over his head , Fred Kroeger had certainly spoiled his daughter in recent hours, the Marshall reflected to himself. He asked of her parents and Betty Jane told him that they had decided to remain in St. Louis and return the next day.
“Daddy just sent me back to open up,” Betty Jane informed him.
“Did you see your mother, too?” Shedd asked.
The girl glanced at him in quick surprise. “No,” she answered. “She was visiting friends and I was out with my friends.”
Shedd stood up from his hot chocolate, laid a nickel on the counter and left the store. The Marshal was turning over scenarios and possibilities in his head. He figured that the spending spree was a deliberate ploy on Fred’s part to keep the girl from seeing her mother. Shedd still believed that Mr. Kroeger may have done something to Mrs. Kroeger. The cans of gas just fueled his suspicions that beyond everything else there was a ploy to burn down the store. What he couldn’t figure is whether Betty Jane had a roll. Was she just sent to bring the gas here so Fred wasn’t ever seen with it, or was she sent to do the job herself?
Shedd had noticed that the cans of gas were not present, so he walked up the street just out of sight. He waited long enough to see the lights in the store blink off, then hurried to the Kroeger home. He noticed the cans of gas on the back porch. Betty must have stopped at the house first and left the cans there before going to the store.
Deciding to question about the cans of gasoline, Shedd went back to the store and began knocking on the door. He knew Betty Jane would likely be in the back-living quarters and he knocked loudly enough to get her attention. When he didn’t hear an answer, he became a little concerned. Shedd then got a ladder from one of the adjoining buildings, and began tapping on the window to gain her attention. When Betty Jane turned on the light, the Marshall was surprised to she that she was sleeping fully clothed.
“I’m sorry I woke you up Betty Jane,” he said, “but I got to worrying about your folks. How was it they got to St. Louis?”
“Why, with some man in a car,” Betty Jane replied. “Daddy had me sleep up here at the store Wednesday night, so I could open the store. He and Mama stayed at the house and left from there.”
“Have you been down to the house since then? Tonight?”
“Why, of course Mr. Burly. Is there something the matter?”
The Marshall face became stern and his voice now direct, “Betty Jane, how did you come into town with those cans of gasoline?”
Betty Jane twisted her face in an appearance of confusion, “Well to tell you the truth Mr. Burly, I just got all messed up on what Daddy told me to do.”
The Marshall had gotten what he was looking for which was some indication the Fred Kroeger had something to do with the cans of gasoline. He bid a good evening to the girl and left the back of the store.
The following morning Shedd was sitting in the office of G.S. Sizemore, the prosecuting attorney, and laying out his suspicions of what was going on at the Kroeger Variety store. Sizemore sat and patiently listened to the excited Marshall without interruption. When Shedd finished, the seasoned prosecutor looked down at his desk, rubbed his temple with his forefinger for a moment then spoke.
“So, let me get this straight Marshall. You believe that Mrs. Kroeger is dead and may or may not be lying in the Kroeger home as we speak. That Fred Kroeger has planned an arson to burn down the store and the home to both destroy any evidence of Mrs. Kroeger’s murder and collect insurance proceeds? You know this because you witnessed the young Kroeger girl bring these cans of gasoline into town, but you doubt that she has any involvement? Is that about the whole of it?”
“Exactly!” Shedd slapped the prosecutor’s desk with his hand at the same time. “But all I’ve got is my gut and suspicions. I ain’t got any real evidence.”
Sizemore cautioned patience and advised the Marshall to keep an eye on things. If the Kroegers did not return, both of them by the afternoon then they would convene again and decide their next step. With that the marshal left the prosecutor’s office and took up his other occupation of mail delivery.
When Shedd returned to Eminence that afternoon with the mail, he found that the Kroegers had still not returned. He had only been sitting in Sizemore’s office for a few minutes discussing the potential case when a call came through that would shock both men.
The call was from Sergeant C. W. Huston of the Missouri Highway Patrol in Rolla. He informed Shedd and Sizemore that Fred Kroeger’s wrecked car lay in a ditch just four miles south of St. James.
“A young woman who gave her name as Sally McGee of St. Louis wrecked it,” the Sergeant reported.
“And where is she now?” Shedd demanded.
“That’s what we would like to know. Trooper Bain took her into Salem with all her baggage and left her at a tourist court. By the time we traced the license number today, and found that the car came back to a Fred Kroeger, and that the name she gave us was false, well she was gone.”
The trooper then gave a description of the young miss McGee, and of course both men noticed the similarities to Betty Jane. The men concluded their conversation with the Sergeant, and told him they would be in touch with any information they might find. As Sizemore placed the handset back into the receiver, Shedd slammed his hand down of the prosecutor’s desk.
“Well we know she’s lied about something, an I’ma fixing to head right on over and get me an answer.”
With that Burly Shedd walked out Sizemore’s office, and make a direct line for the Variety Store. Almost as if sensing some showdown, Betty Jane retreated to the rear of the store as the marshal entered.
“Betty Jane,” he said in a scolding manner, “you took a taxi cab from Salem last night. So, tell me again where is your father’s car?”
With that, Betty Jane hung her head into her hands and began to sob big wet tears.
“No,” she confessed, “I wrecked that car up by St. James, Mr. Burly. I might as well tell the truth. Daddy used it while I was shopping and visiting in St. Louis, then told me to drive it back. After I wrecked it, I gave the highway patrol a false name. I didn’t have no driver’s license and I was scared.”
Shedd started to feel for the girl as her sobs grew louder, now having unburdened herself. He started to speak in an effort to console her, when she began to speak again.
“I’m gonna tell you the truth about the gasoline, too. My brother had a little accident with the car when he was home. Mama and Daddy were so mean to him about it that he went back to the army to get away from them. I felt like I just couldn’t face them after I wrecked the car. I planned to go back up there, pour gasoline over the wreck and set it on fire, then kill myself.” In what felt like a final wail of overcoming grief, Betty Jane concluded, “But this morning I knew I couldn’t go through with it.”
With that Betty Jane fell into Shedd’s arms, where the marshal held her while she wept and shook with despair. He felt nothing but pity for the young girl, and understood why she would tell such a tale. Learning that her father had carried insurance through the St. Louis Motor Club, Shedd took Betty Jane to the telephone office and assisted her in filing a claim by long distance. He next arranged for her to take a cab to Salem where should could catch a bus to St. Louis, so that she could meet with her father and they could complete the paperwork.