Lightning on a Quiet Night
In the years following World War II, a town too proud of its own virtues has to deal with its first murder.
Despite the implications of the crime, the town of Beneficent, Mississippi, population 479, tries desperately to hold onto its vain self-image. The young veteran Jack Davis holds that idyllic vision of the town and tries to share it with Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana. But she is repelled by everything in it. While the sheriff tries to find the murderer, Jack and Lisa’s contentious courtship reveals the town’s strange combination of astute perceptions and surprising blind spots. Then they stumble onto shocking discoveries about some of the town’s leading citizens. But where will those discoveries lead? To repentance? Or to denial and continuation in vanity?
Read an excerpt:
From Chapter 1:
The northeast Mississippi town of Beneficent had never known a murder until Friday, January 9, 1948. Nor, in the oldest memory of its 479 citizens, had it known a single felony.
From Chapter 2:
Jack Davis went to sleep in peace but woke in terror. Clawing his way up into the cold darkness of his house, he knew what had happened. He had dreamed The Dream again.
In the dream, he walked through woods like those of the Vosges Mountains in France, where he’d known savage fighting. But unlike the Vosges, this dream-woods exuded calm so deep it seemed tranquility itself had come alive.
Then in an instant, that peaceful woods shrieked mortal danger. For some unknown enemy had set an ambush. The man’s face remained hidden among the leaves, but one dread shape showed stark and clear. From among fern fronds, the enemy’s pistol pointed directly at Jack’s heart. There the dream always ended, in the certainty of imminent death.
Now fully awake, Jack realized the phone was ringing. He felt his way through darkness into the hallway where his old box phone hung on the wall. Rain drummed steadily on the roof.
Jack lifted the phone’s receiver to his ear and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Hello?”
“Jack?” Worry throbbed in the woman’s voice. “This is . . . Cornelia Rakestraw . . . Is Callie with you?”
Jack’s temper flared at the implication. Then he realized how frantic she must be to ask.
“No, ma’am,” he said simply, then added, “Is anything wrong?”
It was a dumb question, but he had to say something. What time was it? Feeling along the wall, he twisted the knob of the ancient rotary light switch. Through the kitchen door he could see a clock.
Two-fifteen. No wonder Mrs. Rakestraw was frantic.
“Callie hasn’t come home. We don’t know where she is.”
“Maybe she spent the night with another cheerleader and forgot to call in.”
“She didn’t. We’ve phoned all of them.” Another sob. “Hiram is out looking for her, but I had to stay here with little Clem. Jack, I almost wish you did have her there because I know you’d do the right thing.”
How could this woman think he’d seduce a child, much less the sister of his teammate Clyde Rakestraw, killed in action on a distant island? He forced his anger down. “Mrs. Rakestraw, there’s never been anything between Callie and me. Is there any way I can help?”
A long pause.
“I don’t know. The only place Hiram knew to look was the all-night truck stop on Highway 78. That’s twenty-five miles away. Can you think of any place else? If you could . . . I know it’s a terrible night out . . . but . . . but could you?”
Rain spattered on the roof and made trickling sounds in the gutters. The last thing Jack wanted was to go out in this weather. But Clyde Rakestraw, if he were alive, would be out there looking for Callie.
Jack felt the weight of responsibility descend upon him like a leaden overcoat. “I don’t know any place, Mrs. Rakestraw. But I’ll go out and try.”
Her effusive thanks still echoed in his ears as he re-donned his work clothes and a heavy outer jacket. He topped these off with an old hat and the olive-drab plastic raincoat he’d bought from Army surplus. Gloves, too. No use freezing his fingers.
Turning his Chevy pickup around, Jack glanced by habit toward the old Miller place a quarter mile to the west. The house was deserted now and the land belonged to him, but his eyes still turned that way as they had when he was a child. That world was now so distant . . .
Back to business, Jack told himself. He cranked down the driver’s window and adjusted the truck’s spotlight to supplement his headlights. The inside control for the spotlight was broken, and he chided himself for not having it fixed. His arm would get soaked, but he’d need the extra light where he was going.
The gravel road from Beneficent to Cherry Grove, twenty miles west, wound through varied terrain. The fertile north-south valley where Beneficent nestled gave way, four miles west, to rolling hills. Jack’s farm straddled the border of valley and hills. Then the hills grew steeper and higher, while the farms grew scarcer and scrubbier. Eventually, the twisting road topped a ridgeline and dropped down to the swampland of Branch Creek, which marked the county line. Bootleggers there operated first in one county and then the other, depending on which sheriff was more aggressive at the time.
Jack avoided the road’s well-defined ruts and drove wherever the gravel lay thickest. No use in getting stuck. The Chevy’s windshield wipers cleared the steady rain, but fogging windows kept him busy wiping with an old towel. Maybe someday someone would invent a defrosting system that worked.
He drove directly to the nearest of three places where teenagers often parked, a fifty-yard-square clearing on a hilltop crisscrossed with vehicle trails. Using his spotlight and getting his left arm wet in spite of glove and raincoat, he confirmed that no cars remained.
He followed the same procedure at the other two places, each more rugged than the one before it. He found no cars. Rain came harder, spattering fiercely on the metal roof of his cab, and lightning flashed. At Branch Creek, Jack turned around and headed back toward home. This time he crept along in low gear with his window down. Ignoring his drenched and aching left arm, he played the spotlight first on one ditch and then the other.
At the driveway to each farm, he searched for recent car tracks in the mud where gravel was thin. The Rakestraw’s driveway, three miles west of his own, showed one set of fresh tracks—apparently Hiram Rakestraw’s as he began his search.
Haunting memories from that farm crowded in on Jack: the basketball goal nailed up above the barn door, the dirt court worn smooth before it. On many an off-season afternoon, he and Jimmy Fletcher and Clyde Rakestraw had practiced together while ten-year-old Callie looked on.
He shook off the memory. He would phone Mrs. Rakestraw that he’d found nothing. Then he could get a hot shower. With that and an hour or two of sleep he’d be ready for a full day’s work.
He continued his search, shining the spotlight on each ditch in turn. Lightning flashed more frequently now, with thunder crashing close behind. Strange about lightning: It wrought destruction wherever it struck, but it also showed things you wouldn’t ordinarily see in the world’s prevailing darkness.
At length, between lightning flashes, he played his spotlight on the driveway to the old Miller place. He saw no tracks, for here the gravel lay deep and heavy. Should he search the hundred yards of twisting driveway up to the Miller house? Teens never came there to park. From his house just over the rise, he would have seen reflections of their car lights.
The wet cold chilled him now, but he couldn’t tell Mrs. Rakestraw he’d searched everywhere unless he actually had. Gritting his teeth to prevent chattering, he turned into the Miller driveway. As before, he directed the spotlight first left, then right, working toward the circular turnaround before the house.
He played his spot on the house. No sign of tampering. Jack eased his truck into the second half of the turnaround, shining the spot along the deeper ditch where water collected. Still nothing. He eased into the final quarter of the circle back toward the main drive.
Lightning flashed again.
There. In the ditch.
In the darkness, he played his spotlight on the ditch, and something red reflected. He pulled his truck as close to the ditch as he dared, shining the spot directly on the bright color.
“Oh Lord, no.”
The words sprang out involuntarily. He wept.
She lay on her back in the ditch, arms spread in either direction. Muddy water swirled over her from the abdomen down. Her red-and-white warm-up jacket lay open, revealing her cheerleader costume. Her ponytail, bound with the red ribbon that reflected in Jack’s spotlight, flowed out behind her head like the tail of some sodden comet. Her mouth had dropped open and her dark eyes stared sightlessly into space. But most horrible of all was the unnatural ninety-degree bend in her neck.
Jack had seen violent death before on a score of battlefields. But there it was expected. Here in Beneficent it was alien, an intruder from some brutal foreign land.
Ignoring the pelting rain, Jack leaped from the truck and made the futile but necessary check for signs of life. The body had already stiffened in the winter cold.
Mechanically, Jack climbed into his truck and drove home.
Shivering, dripping water and tracking mud on the hardwood floor, he groped his way to the phone and dialed Sheriff Claibourne Rainwater’s number.
After the sixth ring, a sleepy male voice answered. “Yeah?”
Jack took a deep breath, knowing his words would brand the mark of evil forever on his beloved Beneficent.
“Sheriff, this is Jack Davis. I just found Callie Rakestraw’s body at the old Miller place. She’s been murdered.”
Where to buy your copy
Lightning on a Quiet Night: https://tinyurl.com/yctghohw
Donn’s other books: https://tinyurl.com/y9m7mr2q
More about Donn
Raised in Mississippi, Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterward, he earned a PhD in English literature (Renaissance) and taught literature at two liberal arts colleges. His published works include six novels and a book of poetry. He lives in the woods near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.