I’ll take entries up until 5 p.m. EST on Friday, January 11th. Here’s your mini-mystery:
By Rebecca Benston
Marla Franzen volunteers at the local bird sanctuary. She’s been there for five years and she absolutely loves her work. Recently, there’s been talk that the sanctuary will be closing. The rumor is that a local developer wants to buy the land so that he can build a community of condominiums. Funding hasn’t exactly been great for the sanctuary and the board of trustees for the organization has voted to consider selling the property. Marla has been extremely vocal on the subject and has made it clear to the board of trustees on a number of occasions that this, to her, is not an acceptable course of action. After all, she says, the community doesn’t need another group of condos. The sanctuary is the last peaceful area in town and losing it would be a terrible shame.
Dr. George Ballast, the local dentist is on the board of trustees. He has voted against the sale of the sanctuary each time it has come up in discussion. He is the only one on the board who feels that this would be a great loss to the community. A fellow bird enthusiast, he shares Marla’s concerns about adding yet another group of condos to an already over-populated area. His dental assistant, Sheree Harper, is a long-time friend of Marla’s and she agrees with the doctor. “It’s simply not fair to take away such a beautiful landmark,” she says.
Sheriff Robert Winthorp is also a member of the board of trustees. He feels that the sanctuary is not the “haven” that the volunteers tout it to be. The property is poorly maintained and the birds aren’t so extraordinary that the community will miss out on anything. Obviously, he is not a bird lover. He’s just a member of the board because it was an election year when they recruited him. “We don’t even have any parakeets, so why not tear it down?” he says.
Local elementary school teacher, Evelyn McInrude, is a board member as well. She claims that the bird sanctuary isn’t sustainable and though she hates the idea of letting it go, it isn’t practical to try and save it. It isn’t a government landmark; it’s simply a local project that is failing miserably. The board had never been able to obtain the funding it needed because their grant requests weren’t strong enough. For that reason, she maintains that the sanctuary has long been a drain on the board members who have been paying to maintain it thus far.
Tomorrow, the board will vote once more to determine whether or not the contractor’s offer is accepted. He’s offering $500,000 for the land and the board knows that this is well over market. The problem is that the volunteers, mainly Marla, have organized a sit-in and plan to take action as soon as they board convenes at 9 a.m.
On this particular evening, Marla visits the sanctuary to reminisce about the good times she has had there. The birds are the only thing that kept her sane after she lost her husband of thirty years to cancer. She cries as she walks through the sanctuary and listens to the birds fluttering around. Suddenly, she hears something near the back of the building. Before she knows what is happening, the place is engulfed in flames and she is trapped. She screams, but no one can hear her. No one works here in the evenings and generally, the place is deserted. The fire blazes out of control and it is a long time before the fire trucks arrive.
In the morning, the volunteers arrive to find a charred mess where their sanctuary used to be. The fire trucks are still there and the Fire Marshall is looking around, collecting evidence for his investigation. Most of the board members are in attendance as they are set to meet this morning to vote on the sale of the property. It appears that the vote will now be a no-brainer. Conspicuously absent from the scene are Dr. Ballast, Mrs. McInrude and Marla. The doctor had an emergency extraction and could not attend the meeting this morning. Mrs. McInrude called and left a message saying that she was ill. The other board members decide to discuss the fire once they have convened their meeting.
As they discuss the fire, Sheriff Winthorp asks the board to hold off on the vote out of respect for the loss of the sanctuary. He also mentions that it is curious that all of the volunteers except Marla were present this morning. The board agrees to postpone the vote until the following Monday in order to allow for the appropriate investigations to take place. After all, they had an insurance claim to file and they needed to wait for the inspector’s report from the fire department.
A week passes and the Fire Marshall comes to the board’s meeting to discuss the findings of his investigation. A female body was found among the ashes and has been identified as Marla Franzen. The board members are shocked and horrified at the news. All but Mrs. McInrude are in attendance and Dr. Ballast confirms what the Fire Marshall says by informing the board that he had to verify the dental records. The body was, in fact, Marla Franzen. No suspects have been identified as the scene was devoid of any usable prints or other evidence. Whoever had burned the sanctuary down had known exactly what they were doing.
Weeks later, there’s a break in the case. Dr. Ballast has disappeared and it is reported that he was seen leaving town with a woman at around midnight just hours after the board meeting where the final vote to sell the property had taken place. He and his companion boarded a plane for Costa Rica and he is not expected to return. His office appears to be permanently closed.
The contractor has planned to begin construction of the condominiums within the month and most of the red tape has been dealt with in terms of the insurance claims, etc. Mrs. McInrude never returned to the board meetings and one of the board members took it upon herself to visit McInrude’s apartment to make sure she was ok. She found the apartment to be in decent shape, but there was no evidence that McInrude had been there for several weeks.
What is going on here? Who set the fire at the Bird Sanctuary? Who was Dr. Ballast leaving town with? What happened to Mrs. McInrude?