Book: Dead Man Talking
Dead Man Talking
The fifth book in the Pepper Martin Mystery series, 2009
There really is a Monroe Street Cemetery in Cleveland, but thanks to the work of a dedicated group of volunteers, it is not nearly in as awful a shape as I portray it in Dead Man Talking. This book is dedicated to the members of the Monroe Street Cemetery Foundation, the Woodland Cemetery Foundation, the Ohio Cemetery Alliance, and to all the other hardworking people all over the country (and the world) who help preserve our past and the memories of the people who have gone before us by restoring and maintaining our cemeteries. Cemeteries are truly museums without walls. Visit one near you, and volunteer to help. What you do will be remembered and appreciated for generations to come.
The ghosts were waiting for me when I arrived at Monroe Street Cemetery that morning.
I figured they would be. They’d been hanging around my office at Garden View Cemetery ever since the day a couple weeks earlier when my boss, Ella Silverman, informed me that instead of leading tours through Garden View that summer, I would be spending my time working on a restoration project at Monroe Street.
Back at Garden View, I’d pretty much been able to ignore this pack of annoying spooks, and I knew why. They were buried here at Monroe Street, and far from where they were resting (but not at peace), they didn’t have nearly as much ghostly oomph. Here they were as lively as the dead are likely to get and way pushier than ghosts have any right to be.
Then again, I guess I couldn’t blame them. Thanks to their daily visits to my office, they’d had a chance to look around Garden View, and they were bound to be pissed. After all, Monroe Street and Garden View are as different from each other as cemeteries can be.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a cemetery geek. Not like Ella. But I do know that in the hierarchy of burying grounds, Garden View is at the tippy-top. Its three hundred acres are as swanky and pristine as Monroe Street is… well, far be it from me to judge, but it’s hard to escape the facts. This one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old, thirteen-acre patch just to the west of downtown Cleveland was nowhere near as elegant-or as well maintained-as Garden View. The city-owned Monroe Street had been neglected for years, and it showed. From where I stood, I could see the overgrown paths and shaggy lawn. Oh yeah, and the few hundred vandalized and toppled headstones thrown in just for good measure.
But of course, if Monroe Street were perfect, it wouldn’t need to be restored, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place, and the gang of irritating ghosts wouldn’t have been all over me like-
Well, like ghosts on the world’s one and only private investigator for the dead.
“My hat is missing.” A tall, thin guy, who probably hadn’t looked any better alive than he did dead, rubbed the top of his bald head. “They say you solve mysteries. They told me you could find it.”
“As if she’d waste her time on you!” A woman in a canary yellow gown and one of those big honkin’ picture hats elbowed him out of the way and stepped into my path. “I haven’t heard from my beau. Something terrible must have happened to him. Else he never would have abandoned me. You must find him. They say you have the Gift, and-”
“News flash!” I said this nice and loud so Mr. Hatless and Ms. I-Should-Have-Looked-in-a-Mirror-Before-I-Wore-Yellow-with-My-Waxy-Complexion and all the rest of the ghosts crowding in on me were sure to hear. There were a couple dozen of them, and I glanced all around, meeting their eyes one after the other. “Missing hats and missing lovers… Come on, people, you know that’s not my thing. If you’ve got something important for me to investigate-”
“Aunt Lulu’s ruby necklace was nowhere to be found after she passed,” a woman wailed.
“My brother told Ma I was the one who ate the last of the cherry pie,” a man moaned.
“There’s money missing from the collection plate.” This from an elderly man in a clerical collar.
“Which ain’t nearly as important as my problem.” A flapper pushed to the front of the crowd. “There’s liquor missing from the speakeasy, and if the boss finds out, there will be hell to pay.”
At the sound of such language, Ms. Yellow swooned.
The preacher tsk-tsked.
I knew if I didn’t take control, these annoying ghosts would spend the summer bugging the crap out of me. With the restoration project already on my plate, that was more than I could handle.
“You’re not listening. None of you are listening!” I stomped one Juicy Couture ballet-flat clad foot against the ground to emphasize my point. “I don’t waste my Gift on dumb stuff,” I told them, even though I shouldn’t have had to. “So let’s make two lines. Those of you who are looking for lost necklaces and missing boyfriends and money and such…” I waved to my right. “You get over here. If any of you were murdered and need me to actually use my Gift to find your killer so you can finally go into the light…” I gestured to my left.
They shuffled and shambled. They stalled and hemmed and hawed. But in the end, they formed the lines. I should say line. One. On my right.
“All rightee, then,” I said, with a ta-da gesture to my left. “None of you have anything important for me to investigate. Nothing that involves you crossing to the Other Side, anyway. So how about you just get a move on.” I shooed them. “I’ve got enough problems without a bunch of annoying spooks spooking me.”
Big surprise, they actually listened. One by one, they drifted off among the tumbled headstones and overgrown paths of Monroe Street and disappeared.
Except for one guy who’d been lurking at the back of the crowd. I’d noticed him not because he was as pushy as the other ghosts, but because he wasn’t. While they competed for my attention, he kept his distance. While they chattered, he kept his mouth shut. And while the rest of them scattered off into the nowhere where ghosts go when they aren’t hanging around to bug me, he stayed. But he never looked at me.
Chin up, shoulders back, chest out like a soldier on parade, he paced back and forth on the small, clear path between the cemetery driveway and the overgrown tangle of weeds that was all that was left of the once-pristine grounds of Monroe Street.
Interested in spite of the good sense that told me not to be, I looked him over.
This ghost was a middle-aged man in a charcoal pin-stripe suit. Narrow stripes, narrow lapels, narrow tie. The only thing big about the guy was the black plastic frames of his glasses. That, and his shoulders. He wasn’t tall, but he was stocky and broad, and not as handsome as he was rugged looking. Maybe it was my imagination, but I also thought he looked a little lost.
Did Pepper Martin know to keep her mouth shut? You bet she did. Which doesn’t explain why I stepped toward him. “Is there some part of if you weren’t murdered, I’m not interested you don’t understand?” I asked. “Because if there isn’t-”
He stepped behind a tall-standing headstone and vanished into thin air. Just like that.
“So much for ghosts.” I brushed my hands together, ridding myself of the thought as well as the responsibility of taking care of so many ectoplasmic pests, and it was a good thing I did. Just as that last ghost vanished, my boss Ella pulled up in her minivan and parked behind my Mustang.
“Yoo hoo!” She rolled down the window and waved. Like I’d miss the only other living person anywhere around?
I waved back. “What are you doing here?” I asked. When she stepped out of the van and struggled to lift not one, but two overloaded tote bags, I headed that way. I grabbed one tote from her and went toward the canopy tent that had been set up as a workspace, since there was no office or administration building at Monroe Street. “I thought you had a staff meeting this morning.”
“Isn’t it just like you to be thinking about Garden View, even when you have so much else to do!” Finally at the tent, Ella hoisted her bag onto the lopsided card table under it and deposited it with a thunk. “Careful with that,” she said, moving forward to help when I lifted the twin tote. “We don’t want to aggravate that wound of yours.”
I stretched my left shoulder and felt a little pang in my side. “It’s fine,” I told her because she was already worried and there was no use making things any worse. Ella is the single mother of three teenaged girls. Worry is her middle name.
Not that I could blame her for her concern. She wasn’t used to sending an employee-me-off to a cemetery conference and having that employee-me-end up in the hospital with a gunshot wound. If only she knew all the things that happened in between!
Even after a couple months, the thought of nearly losing my body to the ghost who wanted to keep it for herself still sent heebie-jeebies up and down my spine. My solution was simple: I’d think about something else.
What’s that old saying about being careful what you wish for? No sooner had I decided to put everything that had happened to me in Chicago the winter before on the back burner than Ella reached into the closest tote bag and pulled out one of those little pink message slips.
“Don’t want to forget to give that to you.” She said it like it was the most natural thing in the world, and let’s face it, it should have been. It was. Until I glanced down at the message.
The words were carefully written by Jenine, the woman who worked the front desk back at Garden View and answered our phones when we weren’t around to do it ourselves. Give him a call sometime, it said. He’d like you to come out and visit. Jenine’s loose, flowing script was a sharp contrast to the icy claw that gripped my insides when I saw that on the line marked “From,” she’d carefully added, Your dad.
Ella tried to look casual when she leaned over my shoulder, but since she was a full head shorter than me and had to stand on tip-toe to read the message, her strategy didn’t exactly work. “Important?” she asked, as nonchalant as can be.
I stuffed the pink slip in the pocket of my black cotton sateen cargo pants. “Not really. I’ll take care of it later,” I said. I wondered if Ella knew I was lying to her and to myself.
“So…” I glanced at the overstuffed bags. A better strategy than thinking about my dad or about how last time we talked, I promised I wouldn’t let so much time pass again before I gave him a call. Except I did. I had. And really, there was no wondering why. If I talked to him, he’d ask me-again-to get on a plane and fly out to Colorado, and I’d have to come up with some excuse-again-to explain why I couldn’t.
Me? In a prison?
I’d rather shop for a new wardrobe at Kmart.
Seeing my dad, Gil Martin, the once-prominent plastic surgeon, in his khaki federal prison uniform… Well, if I did, it would make the whole thing all too real, wouldn’t it? Facing Dad would also make me face the facts: no matter how many times I told myself it couldn’t be true, it was. He really had done all those things the US attorneys accused him of. He really was guilty of Medicare fraud. And in the process of committing it, he’d betrayed his profession and his family. He’d hurt Mom so much she was hiding out in Florida. He’d broken my heart.
I cleared a sudden knot from my throat and concentrated on the totes. “You planning on camping out here or something?”
I could just about see the advice dripping from Ella’s lips. Instead, she grimaced to keep her opinions to herself and looked where I was looking-at those overstuffed tote bags. She was wearing a flowing orange skirt and an orange top with three-quarter sleeves. A trio of sparkling orange bracelets graced one arm. They were just summery enough and matched the beads around her neck in shades of melon, peach, and lemon that sparkled in the early morning sunlight.
“I needed to get these supplies over to you,” she said. “Log books, digital cameras, journals, T squares, and triangles. You know, for plotting out the new landscaping. There’s tracing paper and sketch books, too. Two sets of everything.”
I remembered my instructions to the ghosts-one line on the right and one on the left. “One set for each hand?” I asked Ella.
She laughed in the way Ella does when she’s nervous or a little unsure, and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought a thing of it if it also wasn’t the way she laughed when she was feeling guilty.
Nervous and unsure I could deal with. Heck, I’d never done a cemetery restoration. If I cared enough, I’d be nervous and unsure, too.
But guilty was another thing.
And wondering what Ella was feeling guilty about, I was suddenly a little nervous myself.
“There’s something you’re not telling me.” I looked at her hard as I said this, and I knew for sure something was wrong when she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“It was Jim’s idea,” she said.
Jim is the administrator over at Garden View, and he’s Ella’s boss. Which means he’s my big boss.
This did not bode well. Neither did the fidgety little dance Ella did from Earth Shoe to Earth Shoe. “Jim said you’d be fine with the idea once you understood that it’s great publicity for Garden View.”
I folded my arms over my chest and waited for more.
It came in a rush, the way Ella usually imparts information when she knows there’s a chance it’s going to piss me off.
“You see, all the pieces just fell into place late Friday afternoon, and that’s why I didn’t have a chance to tell you about it because Jim was handling all the details, of course, but nobody was sure about anything until this morning, and I didn’t want to tell you before now because I didn’t want you to spend your weekend worrying when you should have been resting. And I hope you did get some rest, I mean, with that gunshot wound of yours, and you know, I don’t ever want anything to happen to you again, and so I thought it was just best if we left it all for today.”
She sucked in a breath and I took the opportunity to move a step closer. “And?” I asked.
“And…” She swallowed hard. “It really is brilliant. I mean, it’s brilliant publicity, and Lord knows, we need all the good publicity we can get. And by we, I mean both Garden View and Monroe Street. People hear about cemeteries and so many of them are creeped out. They don’t understand that cemeteries are actually museums without walls. There’s so much history in a cemetery. And so much interesting art and architecture and-”
“And so you and Jim decided…?”
“Well, I didn’t. Decide, I mean. Though if it had been up to me, I would have made the same decision Jim did. That’s how good of an idea it is. And I know you’ll agree once you hear the details. It was Jim and the board who decided, and the people over at the Historical Society. Since they’re going to be such a critical piece of the puzzle, they had to be in on it, too. And that’s why it took all weekend to come to a decision, because they had a lot of work to do on their end, and-”
A big black limo pulled up the drive into the cemetery, and we both turned to watch. Since there hadn’t been any active burials in Monroe Street for who-knew-how-long, I was intrigued.
Ella, I noticed, wasn’t. But then, she could afford to be blasé; she knew what was going on. I still didn’t, but I had a feeling I was about to find out.
“They’re here.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me toward where the limo stopped. “You’re going to love this,” she said in a stage whisper just as the limo door opened.
Jim, our boss, got out. “Good morning!” Jim is a pleasant guy who I’m convinced wouldn’t know me if he tripped over me in the hallway outside my office. It’s just as well since these days I spend more time investigating for my dead clients than I do working on cemetery business. “Ella told you what’s going on?”
Before I had a chance to either lie or hang Ella out to dry, the door on the far side of the limo opened and a woman in pink popped out. She was old and thin, one of those fluffy types who hang around at the country club my family used to hang around-before Dad did what Dad did and we lost our country-club membership along with our home, our friends, and what there was of a Martin fortune.
The little pink woman was followed by another, taller woman with a broad chest and a scowl on her face. That woman was followed by another, and-
“Mrs. Lamb!” I knew the fourth woman who emerged from the limo. She lived just a couple doors down from where we used to live before-
Anyway, Mrs. Lamb was the mother of my best childhood friend, Dominique. Domi and I were inseparable through our high school years, right up until college when we went our separate ways. We’d kept in touch, until-
There was no use going over it again. I found myself fingering the phone message from my dad and told myself to get a grip. It was a good thing I did. Just at that moment, Mrs. Lamb recognized me (it’s hard to forget a five-foot-eleven redhead) and came around to the other side of the limo.
“Pepper!” Her smile was pleasant enough, but I couldn’t help noticing the way Katherine Lamb’s gaze raked over me from head to toe, checking out my hair, my makeup, my clothes. Her smile wilted a bit when she said, “So, the rumor I heard is actually true. You really do work in a cemetery?”
“Not this cemetery.” I thought it best to set the record straight. Garden View is way classier than Monroe Street. “I’m just sort of here on loan.”
“Yes. Of course.” Mrs. Lamb touched a hand to one diamond earring. “And how is Barb?”
I was tempted to tell her that she could find out herself if she would just pick up the phone and call my mom. But it was early in the morning, and I am never at the top of my game before noon. Besides, like it or not, my hand strayed again to the pocket where I’d tucked my dad’s message. Of course Katherine Lamb hadn’t called my mother. Like all Mom’s other friends, Mrs. Lamb was embarrassed and appalled by my dad’s lack of good sense. Not to mention his carelessness at getting caught.
When I didn’t answer right away, she apparently considered the subject blessedly closed. “You’ve heard about Dominique, of course,” Mrs. Lamb said.
It wasn’t a question. “I heard she graduated from Wellesley, but it’s been a few years and-”
“Wellesley, yes. She married a doctor, you know. They’re living in Manhattan. Upper West Side near the park. And your other friends? Tiffany and Madison and Sydney? What are they up to these days? My goodness, you girls were inseparable, weren’t you?”
We were. Until my dad was declared a felon and the friends who were supposed to be my bridesmaids and my life-long buddies abandoned me, just like my fiancé had. I shrugged like it was no big deal, and I was still scrambling to come up with something to say that would make it sound as if none of it mattered when Jim stepped forward.
“You will all get to know each other better over the next couple months,” he said, looking back and forth between me and the line of well-dressed ladies. “But let me do a quick introduction. Pepper, you seem to already know Katherine Lamb, and this”-he turned toward the fluffy little woman in pink-“this is Mae Tannager.” From there he pointed down the line, starting with the big woman. “And this is Lucinda Wright. Gretchen Hamlin, and-”
“Bianca?” I’d been so busy talking to Mrs. Lamb, I hadn’t noticed the woman who stepped out of the limo last. Now, I stared in awe. I would recognize those perfect high cheekbones, the pouty lips, and the incredible dark eyes anywhere. She was taller even than me, pencil thin, and elegantly dressed in camel-colored pants and an unstructured jacket in shades of burnt orange, taupe, and a startling aqua that matched the color of her silk asymmetrical tee.
Bianca needed only one name because anybody who had ever flipped through a copy of Vogue, or Elle, or Cosmo recognized her at once. She was one of the first African American supermodels, and she’d lived the kind of life most of us-well, I-only dream about. She had homes in Paris, London, and Monaco. She’d married a movie star, but the romance fizzled, and when she jetted to Tahiti to forget her troubles (paparazzi in tow), she’d met a guy from Cleveland who just so happened to have more money than God. He was twenty years older. She was in love and was welcomed with open arms into the closed community of North Coast society.
These days, Bianca devoted her time to various local charities and-way more important-to La Mode, a women’s boutique over on Larchmere, in one of those neighborhoods that’s shabby, chic, trendy-and too expensive for me to shop in. Just thinking about my last trip past La Mode made me wonder if they ever got my nose prints or my drool off the front window.
My hand outstretched, I closed in on Bianca even before I realized I was moving. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, right before I felt like a complete fool, so I added, “Well, you know what I mean.”
She laughed. Her teeth were perfectly straight and blindingly white. She was kind and gracious. I knew she would be. “It’s nice to meet you, too. You must be Pepper.”
She knew my name! I was so flabbergasted, I could only gape. Not a good look for me, so it was just as well that while I was doing it, Jim stepped over. His cheeks were flushed; he was clearly smitten. “Bianca has graciously agreed to be part of the team,” he said.
“Team?” I glanced from Jim to Ella. “We’re a team?”
Ella smiled. “We’ve worked so hard on getting all the pieces in place, and it’s going to be fabulous and such good publicity and-”
“Team.” I fastened my eyes on Ella as I said this, the better to get her to stick to the matter at hand. “What kind of team are we? What are we going to be doing?”
Ella’s smile was a mile wide. “Why, you’re going to restore the cemetery, of course! It’s brilliant PR, Pepper. Instead of you here working with just any volunteers…” When she looked around at the limo ladies, Ella’s eyes sparkled. “All these wonderful women are involved with the Historical Society, and they all understand the importance of cemeteries in preserving local history. They’ve agreed to be part of the team that’s going to work on restoring one of the Monroe Street sections this summer. You know, deciding what to do as far as landscaping, and how to fix the damaged headstones, and how we can all work together to get publicity for the cemetery so that people realize what a worthwhile cause it is and donate to help with the rest of the restoration.”
One look, and I knew if anybody could help, it was these ladies. Sure, they were all a little older than middle aged. Absolutely, they looked as if they’d never stepped foot in a cemetery before (except for funerals) and that they wouldn’t know what to do to restore a headstone if they had to. Heck, I didn’t, either.
But I’d known women like these all my life. They were the movers and shakers of the city, mild-mannered housewives (for the most part) who, thanks to the force of their personalities, their family names, and the big, big bucks they had, could move mountains.
And we were going to be a team!
I found myself smiling at the same time I smoothed a hand over my white blouse. If I was working with Bianca all summer and I could impress her enough…
The thoughts that sped through my head were crazy, sure, but crazier things had happened in my life. Like my family losing its fortune, and Joel dumping me, and me talking to ghosts. Why was it any crazier to imagine that if I worked hard to impress Bianca, there might be a job at La Mode in my future?
No more cemeteries!
No more ghosts!
Days filled with fabulous fashions, elegant fabrics, cultured and very rich clients who came to me for advice and respected my opinions and listened when I recommended styles and put together colors like nobody else could.
I did my best to control the bubble of excitement that would have made me look too unprofessional, and reminded myself that as team captain-I mean, I assumed I was team captain since I was the one with cemetery experience-I needed to be cool, collected, and in control.
I would have been, too, if that ghost in the pin-striped suit didn’t show up again right behind Bianca.
I rolled my eyes, and instantly regretted it. The fashion consultants who worked at La Mode would never be so gauche.
Instead, I concentrated on what Jim was saying, on how he was explaining that Mae and the other women would be working over in Section 10 where a couple prominent early settlers were buried. I was listening. Honest. It would have been easier if that pin-striped spook didn’t hover around behind Bianca, his chin up and his shoulders steady, even though he never once met my eyes.
He moved away, toward the overgrown walkways, marching toward the back corner of the property where the iron fence separated the cemetery from a neighborhood pocked with boarded factories and tiny houses.
“So what do you think?”
Jim’s question snapped me out of my thoughts. Since he was looking at me, I was afraid he was talking to me, too.
“I think…” I grinned in what I hoped was an embarrassed sort of way and pointed toward the Porta potti that was all Monroe Street had to offer in the way of amenities. As if I wouldn’t let myself burst first before I ever set foot in it. “If you’d all excuse me for just a moment…” I sidled toward where I’d seen the ghost vanish into the undergrowth. “I’ll be right back.”
I knew what I was about to do was a big ol’ mistake. Believe me. At this point in my investigating-for-the-dead career, I knew I was better off leaving well enough alone.
Which means I should have simply ignored the guy.
But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. Not when I saw how lost and lonely he looked.
I hate it when ghosts do that to me, but facts were facts and this was one fact I couldn’t ignore. I had to find out what was up with this guy. I did the only thing I could think to do, the one thing I’d never done before in my years of ghostly investigations-I went after him.
As soon as I was sure no one was watching, I ducked into the undergrowth. It was tough getting through the tangle of bushes and tall grass, but it wasn’t hard to keep tabs on my newest ghostly nuisance. I followed the pinstripes.
While he floated easily over it all, I sidestepped a yawning hole in the ground, hopped over a fallen headstone, and maneuvered past a creepy mausoleum with an open, leaning door and a roof that was half caved in. By the time he stopped, we were hemmed in by overgrown lilac bushes. The pastoral mood was ruined by the sound of booming hip hop music coming from a house across the street.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
He must have known I was following him. That’s why he wasn’t surprised by me or by my questions. He stood stock still, his shoulders back and his arms tight against his side.
I stepped closer. “You must want something or you wouldn’t be hanging around.”
He scraped a hand over his firm, square chin.
I poked my thumb over my shoulder, back toward the way I came. “I’ve got work to do. If you’re just going to stand there-”
“I need your help.”
His teeth were gritted and his jaw was so tight when he said this that if ghosts had bones, I would have heard his grinding together.
I waited for more.
He motioned toward the gravestone nearest to where he stood. “My name-”
“Jefferson Lamar.” I tipped my head to read the carving on the stone. “It says you died in 1985.”
“That’s right.” He adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, and for the first time, his eyes met mine. His were as brown as the dirt at our feet where once upon a time grass had flourished. They were troubled, too.
And I knew better than to get myself mixed up in ghostly troubles, right? In fact, I had a scar on my left side to prove it. Which didn’t explain why I took another step closer. “You know who I am?”
He’d looked away, but now his eyes snapped back to mine. “They say you have the Gift.”
“Well, duh!” I was going for funny, but he didn’t laugh. He was obviously the no-nonsense type, so in a no-nonsense way, I explained. “I’m standing here talking to you, right? Obviously I have the Gift. I wouldn’t be able to see you if I didn’t.”
“Of course.” He smoothed a hand over his tie. It was plain, and black, and boring.
Pretty much like this conversation.
I didn’t even try to control my impatient sigh. “I can only stall that bunch so long,” I said, referring to Jim, Ella, and the rest of them. Not to mention Bianca. I didn’t want to just disappear and have her think I was a flake. “If there’s something you want to talk about…”
“I do.” He hauled in a breath. “And they tell me you’re the only one who can help.”
“But you don’t believe it because… what? Because I’m a girl? Because I’m too young? Because I’ve got fashion sense and you think that means I don’t have a brain? If you’ve heard I have the Gift, you also know-”
“You’re good at what you do. In spite of your age. Yes, Gus told me that.”
I was surprised to hear Lamar mention my first client, and naturally, I thought about my encounter with Gus, a mob boss who’d died back in the seventies. Solving Gus’s murder had almost gotten me killed, sure, but it also made me realize that I was a darned good detective. I found out, too, that me and Gus, we were a pretty good team.
Automatically, I found myself smiling. “How is Gus? It’s been a long time.”
“That’s what he said.” Jefferson Lamar shook his head. The gesture was all about wonder. And disgust. “Imagine me spending my time with a criminal like Scarpetti!”
“Sure he was a mob don and all, but deep down inside, Gus is a good guy.”
“Do you think so?” Lamar twitched away the thought as inconsequential. “I’ve learned not to trust the criminal element, and I didn’t want to listen to him. But I didn’t know where else to turn, and Gus, he said you know your stuff.”
I kept right on grinning. “Told you he was a good guy.”
“So you could help? I mean, if I wanted it? If I needed it?”
I was used to ghosts begging me to use my detective skills to help them. This beating-around-the-bush bullshit was getting on my nerves. “Look…” I held my temper, but just barely. It’s not for nothing that my parents started calling me Pepper when I was a kid. It was way better than Penelope, my given name. “If you need me to solve your murder so you can cross over-”
“No, no. It isn’t that.” He dismissed the idea instantly. “I wasn’t murdered. I had a heart attack. I died of natural causes, completely natural causes.”
“So it’s the whole cherry pie, missing necklace, runaway boyfriend routine again?” I made a face. “Like I told all those other ghosts, I can’t be bothered. I’ve got a Gift, remember. It’s not something I can just toss around like-”
“But there was a murder. Right here in Cleveland. And I…” Lamar fished a huge white hanky from his pocket. He took off his glasses and wiped them clean. He put the glasses back on, then refolded the hanky neatly and put it away. “They said I did it.” His voice was nearly lost beneath the booming bass of the hip hop. “I went to prison.”
“Not prison again!” I’d already groaned when I realized Lamar didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
Or maybe he did. He nodded. “Gus Scarpetti told me about that, too. About your father. He said that when I told you about my prison connection, you’d be less than pleased.”
I laughed. “Gus Scarpetti is not the kind of guy who says somebody will be less than pleased. Come on, he said I’d be pissed, right? He said I’d pop like the cork in a bottle of Asti.” I’d already done that, but I never even realized it until I heard my own loud voice echo back at me. I swallowed my temper and controlled the knee-jerk reaction. “Gus isn’t always right,” I said, daring Lamar to contradict me. “Not about everything.”
“I’m sorry. About your father, I mean. But really, Miss Martin, if you’d consider it logically, you’d realize that prison is the best place for him. A well-run prison, that is. With the right structure, consistent discipline, and the proper support, he just might be able to turn his life around. That is the whole point, isn’t it? We should be working toward rehabilitation, not retribution. If we can find a way to change prisoners from the inside-if we can educate them and help them overcome problems with low self-esteem and teach them respect for others-then they’ll be open to learning useful skills, and once we send them outside prison walls, they’ll become productive members of society.”
“Dad was already a productive member of society. If you call nose jobs and chin jobs and boob jobs productive. There are plenty of people who think those things aren’t just productive, they’re essential.” I gave him a sour look to signal that as far as I was concerned, this conversation was at an end.
Until I thought about what he’d just said.
“Hold on!” I held up a hand to stop him, even though Lamar wasn’t about to say anything else. “First you criticize Gus. Then you talk up the benefits of prison. And you committed a murder.”
“I didn’t say I committed it. I said I was accused of it. I said-”
“You said you died of natural causes. In prison?”
His nod was barely perceptible.
“Then that means you were tried. And found guilty.”
“Yes. Right here in Cleveland.” He looked away, and maybe it was just my imagination or a trick of the sunlight, but I think he faded around the edges. Suddenly he wasn’t as solid looking anymore, and just as suddenly, I realized what I was sensing from this ghost wasn’t hesitancy or shyness. He was embarrassed to be rolled up in the same criminal-element ball with the likes of Gus Scarpetti.
“So, you weren’t a career criminal, huh?”
My question hung in the summer air between us.
He pushed his glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose.
“I didn’t do it,” he said. His voice was as steely as the look that flared in his eyes. “I was framed. I don’t know by who.”
“And that’s what you want me to find out.” As epiphanies went, this wasn’t exactly a big one. Ghosts always want something. But something else Lamar mentioned niggled at the back of my mind. I chewed over the thought for a couple seconds before the truth hit. “Whoa!” This time when I held up a hand, I stepped back, too. The better to distance myself from the idea that went flying through my head like one of those Asti corks. “You said we. We should be working toward rehabilitation, not retribution. If we can find a way to change prisoners. You were a cop.”
Was that a bit of a smile I saw lift the corners of Lamar’s mouth? Maybe it was really just the beginnings of a sneer, because the next moment, that’s exactly what he did. “I’m afraid even that amount of irony wasn’t enough for the universe,” he said. “Not in my case. I wasn’t a police officer, you see, Miss Martin. I was a prison warden.”
“Wow.” There wasn’t much more I could say. “So you were running a prison and you ended up in one?”
“Like I said…” He spread out his hands. “Ironic.”
“And you think you were framed for this murder.”
“I don’t think it, young lady. I know it. And you’re going to prove it. You’re going to clear my name.”
Speaking of names, just then I heard mine being called from somewhere in the tangle of greenery behind me. I recognized Ella’s voice and took pity on her. Even sensibly low-heeled Earth Shoes weren’t enough to get a middle-aged, slightly overweight woman through the double-whammy of overgrown landscaping and tumbled headstones.
“I’m over here, Ella!” I called to her and turned in the direction where I heard branches snapping and Ella’s labored breathing.
“You’ll help me?”
Lamar’s question brought me spinning back around, but I didn’t have a chance to answer. Right before I was going to-though I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say-Ella pushed through a head-high wall of weeds.
“I was so worried about you!” She fanned her face with one hand. “I thought you’d been gone too long, and then when you didn’t come back… Good thing I heard your voice, though…” She glanced around at what she thought was the empty expanse of cemetery that surrounded us. “Who were you talking to?”
“Just some neighborhood kids who came by on their bikes.” I motioned toward the sidewalk on the other side of the iron fence not six feet from us. “They wondered what we were doing here, so I explained about the restoration.”
Ella’s expression cleared. “Isn’t that just like you, taking the time to do that! I knew that’s what happened. I told Jim. I told him, I bet Pepper just can’t wait.”
“That’s it!” I made a broad gesture that included the entire section where we were standing. “I’m just so darned excited about this restoration, and then on my way back from the Porta potti I spotted this area, and it looks so interesting, I had to explore. It’s just perfect.”
Appreciation glowed in her eyes. “I’ll make sure you get this section to work on for the restoration,” she said. “I like it, too. It’s so peaceful.”
She mustn’t have heard the hip hop music.
“But we’ll have time for all that later.” She latched onto my arm. “It’s time to get back to the group. I got a call just a couple minutes ago. The TV people are on their way.”
“TV?” I stood my ground, not sure if I was liking what I was hearing. “Are you telling me-”
“Well, it’s all part of what I didn’t have time to tell you earlier. The whole thing is going to be filmed, you see. The restoration project, I mean. They’re making a documentary. And then when Jim told me he’d arranged all that with the local PBS station, I said… well, I just thought I was being funny. You know what a wacky sense of humor I have! I suggested they make it a sort of reality show. You know, like Survivor. Or The Amazing Race. Something like that.”
I was more confused than ever. I didn’t even bother to look over at Lamar to see if he was feeling the same way. Lucky him, he had no concept of reality TV. He’d died years before some sick-minded person thought it up. I worked through all Ella had said. “So, the people from Survivor are going to come in and-”
“No, no.” By this time, she was tugging me, and I had no choice but to go along. We marched through the waist-high weeds, carefully stepping over headstones and smashed bottles and what looked to be a broken crack pipe.
Always single-minded, Ella didn’t speak another word until we were back on the drive that would take us to where Jim and the others were waiting. “There are going to be two teams, you see,” she said. She paused for a moment, at the same time grabbing the hem of her orange top and flapping it to cool herself off. “And each team will be given one section of the cemetery to work on. Since you like that one back there so much…” She looked back the way we came, and for the first time, I noticed that Jefferson Lamar was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll make sure that’s where you and your team work,” Ella continued. “Each team is going to be responsible for the entire restoration of its section. You know, the planning and the landscaping. And the whole thing is going to be filmed and put on TV each week. We’ve got volunteer judges all lined up: the director of the art museum, the arts editor from the Plain Dealer, and one of the professors from the Art Institute. Isn’t it exciting!”
Now that Ella mentioned it, it was kind of exciting. I ran a hand through my hair and smoothed my blouse just to be sure I looked my best.
“We’re bound to create a sensation with this,” Ella said, leading the way back toward the tent/office. “We’re going to get some great publicity in the cemetery publications, not to mention the news shows. There’s already talk of Dateline coming in to do a piece.”
I was liking the sound of this more and more. By the time we’d rejoined my team, I was grinning from ear to ear.
And just in time to watch a van roll up and stop. It was emblazoned with the logo of the local public TV station.
Too late, I thought about checking my hair and my makeup. I saw that Bianca had no such problems. Just as I glanced over, she was applying a fresh coat of lipstick. By the time a blonde in a black skirt, matching jacket, and a manly blue shirt got out of the van, we were ready for her.
The blonde was a little younger than me, a little shorter, and a whole lot chubbier. She was not, apparently, one to waste precious time. “Greer Henson.” She shook hands with us, one after the other, introducing herself each time. “I guess I’m in charge of this little program.”
Something about the way she said those last two words made me wince. I watched her make her way down the line, do the proper fawning over Bianca, and march back to where Jim and Ella waited. “Who’s in charge?” she asked.
Ella looked my way.
And Greer Henson jumped in with both feet. “So, Ms. Martin, where do we get started?”
It was my moment to shine, and I wished I was better prepared. I also wished that Jefferson Lamar hadn’t picked that particular second to pop back onto the scene.
“What about me?” he asked. He was standing just beyond Greer. “What about my problem?”
“I’ll look into it.”
“Say what?” Greer turned eyes the color of a porpoise my way. “You’ll look into it? Into what? Into telling me where we need to start filming? I don’t think so.” Her voice was singsongy. “Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I don’t mess around. That’s not what gets a producer noticed. So we’re not going to waste precious minutes, or precious daylight, or precious brain cells. Not my precious brain cells, anyway.”
“You promise?” Lamar’s question overlapped with Greer’s whining so I didn’t have a chance to answer.
He wasn’t about to let me off so easy. “And you’ll find out I’m really innocent, won’t you?”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves here.” I was talking to Lamar. Good thing it was one of those all-purpose comments. Because I sounded like I actually knew what I was talking about, everybody on my team, along with Greer, Ella, and Jim, looked my way.
“We just need a couple minutes to get organized,” I said. “So why don’t you-” I turned toward Greer who obviously didn’t like to be told what to do. Maybe that’s part of a producer’s job description. I can’t say, seeing that I’d never met a producer before. I did know that when she scrunched up her nose and pinched her lips together, she looked a whole lot like one of those garden gnomes. Not the cute ones, either.
“Why don’t you get your cameras or your camera crew or whatever out of your truck,” I told her. “I’m going to get together with the team here and plan a little strategy. By the time you’re back, we’ll be ready to roll.”
Two minutes with this babe and already I knew she wasn’t going to like it when I was right. And let’s face it, I’m right a lot of the time.
With a tight smile on her puffy face, she headed to the van.
“So…” This time, I glanced at Ella. “What’s the plan?”
“Well, there isn’t one. Not really. The only plan is that you act naturally and do what you need to do. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?” Ella wound a finger through the beads around her neck. “It’s all supposed to be natural and unscripted. You know, like real reality TV.”
I kept my opinions to myself. If I was the team captain, I’d better start acting like it. For the TV cameras and so that Bianca would know I had what it took to be management material. “I’m thinking when they start filming, my team should be on its way over to that section where we’re going to work,” I said, waving Mae Tannager and the rest of them over. “That will show how organized we are, right? It’ll be one of those-what do you call them?-action scenes. Or maybe we should have a meeting first? In the limo?” I was already on my way over there. “The team about to encounter its first challenge, discussing, planning, strategizing. What do you think, ladies?”
All the team members looked at each other uncertainly, but it was Mae Tannager who spoke up. “I think you’ve got this all wrong, young lady.”
I stopped in my tracks and looked at Ella, a question in my eyes.
She scooted over, grabbed me, and dragged me aside. “This is Team Number One, and Mae’s the captain,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Mae’s always in charge of whatever committee she’s on.”
“Oh. Of course.” It wasn’t fair, but I understood. Mae had the bucks, and money talks. “I’m just a team member, but I’m the one with the cemetery expertise. Sure. Right.” I actually liked the idea of relinquishing the in-charge responsibility, so my smile was genuine when I started back to where my team waited. “So, Mrs. Tannager, what do you think for a first shot? Limo? Tent? Or should we be marching off to our section to get right to work?”
“Uh, Pepper.” I didn’t know Ella was right behind me until she tugged on my sleeve.
I excused myself with a smile. The moment I turned around, I was face-to-face with Jefferson Lamar.
Believe me, I know what happens when the living come in contact with ghosts. They freeze up like Popsicles. Been there, done that. Wasn’t going to risk it again.
I jumped back.
“Do you promise you’ll help?” he asked.
I was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“I promise.” What else could I say?
It was, apparently, the right thing. Lamar faded away just as Ella stepped nearer. “This isn’t your team,” she said.
“Huh?” It wasn’t brilliant, but it was succinct. “Are you telling me-”
“That this is Mae’s team. They’ll get along fine without your guidance. They’re Team Number One. You’ll be captain of Team Number Two.”
“And Team Number Two..?” I looked around. There wasn’t anyone else in sight.
“They’ll be here in just a moment, I think.” Ella checked her watch. “Greer wants to be filming when they arrive.”
On cue, a guy with a huge video camera on his shoulder leaped out of the van. Greer was at his side, issuing orders every step of the way.
Which meant the cameras were rolling when the van containing my team rolled into the cemetery, and all of Cleveland (well, as much of Cleveland as would be watching a lame PBS show about a lame cemetery restoration) was witness to the blank look on my face when I saw what was written on the side of that van.
CUYAHOGA COUNTY JAIL:
COMMUNITY WORK SERVICE PROGRAM.
Quinn Harrison has one of those smiles. It’s sleek. It’s slick. It’s sexy.
Oh boy, is it sexy!
And at that very moment, I wanted to smack it right off his face, and if he had a brain in his head, he would have known it. After all, we’d first met back when I was investigating Gus Scarpetti’s murder, and we’d been seeing each other regularly since this past winter, when I returned from my mom’s house in Florida, where I had been recuperating from that gunshot wound.
In the time I’d known him, Quinn had been nice enough to save my life a time or two. But believe me, that wasn’t why I was sleeping with him.
I was sleeping with Quinn because, not counting the ghost I once fell in love with, he was the hottest guy I’d met since forever. It’s not like we’d ever established any kind of meaningful relationship or anything. We didn’t need one. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to have some sort of meaningful relationship with him, and I didn’t know for sure, but I liked to think he felt the same. I guess neither one of us knew where to begin.
Then again, if Quinn was half the superman he believed himself to be, he should have learned to read my mind by now. That would have been a good start.
“Come on, Pepper.” His eyes sparking, he grazed one hand from my wrist and up to my elbow. He brushed his long, strong fingers back and forth over my arm. “You’ve got to admit, it’s pretty funny.”
“Not.” I would have crossed my arms over my chest if what he was doing didn’t feel so good. We were sitting side by side on the couch in my living room, so I slid him a look. “Explain to me the funny part about being the head of a team of felons!”
“They’re not felons. Not all of them, anyway.” Quinn got up long enough to go into my dining room where we’d left the bottle of red wine we’d opened when we came back from dinner. I am more of a martini girl. Always have been. But thanks to Quinn, I was learning to appreciate a good bottle of wine. Actually, thanks to Quinn, I was learning to appreciate a whole bunch of new and interesting things.
One of which was that when he had the little spark in his eyes, his mind was on one thing and one thing only-sex.
Come to think of it, Quinn had that spark in his eye every time I saw him.
Which meant either he was crazy nuts about me, or he only came around when he was looking for some action.
I batted the thought aside. Right now, I had bigger things to worry about.
Like those felons.
“The TV cameras were right there when they piled out of that van. They were filming. That nasty little Greer Henson says the look on my face was so priceless, she’s going to use that as the opening scene when the first episode airs next week.” I groaned. “The only consolation I have is that nobody is going to watch that stupid show, and that means nobody’s going to see me with a bunch of criminals out on parole.”
“Number one, I’m going to watch.” Quinn had stripped off his navy suit coat as soon as we were in the door. He’d discarded the shoulder holster that held his gun, too, and now, he unhooked his gold detective’s badge from his belt and tossed that on the table, too. His pressed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life white shirt glimmered from the darkness of the dining room. So did his smile. He refilled my glass, brought it to me, and went back for his and the bottle.
“Number two, none of those people are out on parole. They’re on probation. Parole is when you’re in prison and you get released. That’s different from probation. You can be put on probation when you commit a crime, you plead guilty, but the judge doesn’t send you to jail. As a condition of your probation, you have to do certain things. Like see your probation officer whenever you’re scheduled. Or stay off drugs. If you don’t fulfill the conditions of your probation, you can get sent right to jail. Your people-for God knows what reason-have been ordered to help with that cemetery restoration of yours.”
“It’s not my cemetery restoration.” Since he’d left my glass on the coffee table, my hands were free. I crossed my arms over my chest.
Quinn dropped back on the seat beside me, one leg crooked and his arm thrown casually across the back of the couch. The last thing on his mind was my problem. Yeah, yeah, there was that whole spark-in-his-eyes thing. That was my first clue. But I also knew what he was thinking about because after he took a sip of wine, he skimmed his mouth over the sensitive skin just below my ear.
I shivered appropriately, but let’s face it, it was going to take a whole lot more than that to make me forget everything that happened at Monroe Street that day. “I can’t believe Ella pulled this on me,” I grumbled.
Quinn didn’t look happy about the brush off, but he gave in almost gracefully. Then again, he could afford to. He knew he’d get his way-sooner or later. He always did.
He sat back to sip and savor his wine. “It’s pretty smart, really. Think of the publicity.”
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking about. Me, on TV, with…” I could barely make myself speak the words, and besides, I didn’t know what to call my team, anyway. Were they inmates? Jailbirds? Convicts? In the time since I’d become a private investigator, I’d dealt with my share of criminals, but never with ones who were actually incarcerated, or who should have been.
Jail, remember, was something I didn’t want to think about.
To keep my mind from going down that path, I reached for the file folder I’d plunked on the coffee table when I got back from the cemetery that day. I paged through the papers in it.
“Look at this guy,” I tipped the folder toward Quinn not nearly long enough for him to see the photo of the youngest member of my team. Delmar Lui was a skinny Asian eighteen-year-old with bad skin and a shock of hair that was darker even than Quinn’s. Unlike Quinn’s neat, clean cut, Delmar’s hair stuck up in spikes. So did the silver piercings protruding from his lip, his nose, and his left eyebrow. Back at the cemetery, when he opened his mouth long enough to say, “Hey,” I saw there was a silver stud in his tongue, too.
“This kid’s a graffiti artist. Who in their right mind would send a graffiti artist into an already-vandalized cemetery to help with the restoration? And why did he get arrested, anyway? Don’t you cops have better things to do than chase around after kids?”
Quinn read over my shoulder and pointed. “He wasn’t arrested because of the graffiti. He broke into a school; that’s where he defaced the property. He was charged with breaking and entering.”
“Whatever!” I cast Delmar’s paperwork aside and looked at the next picture. This one showed a pudgy, middle-aged guy who was as pale as one of those fish that live way at the bottom of the ocean where there’s never any light. His eyes pointed in different directions.
“Aggravated robbery.” I shuddered at the very thought.
“He doesn’t look like he could pull it off.” Quinn took the paper out of my hands. “Jake Swazacki, known to his friends as Crazy Jake. That sounds promising.”
I was not in the mood for sarcasm, and just so Quinn would know it, I snatched the paperwork back from him and read the narrative of Crazy Jake’s crime. “He walked into a convenience store and told the clerk to turn over all the money in the cash register because he had a bottle of bleach with him, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.” I wasn’t sure if this piece of information was intended to make me laugh or cry. “At least if they’re going to send me criminals, they could send me smart ones.”
“How about this guy?” Quinn poked a finger at the next picture. The man in it was thirtyish, bald, and had a tattoo of a pit bull smack in the center of his forehead. His eyes were a shade of blue that reminded me of neon.
Quinn took a closer look. “Reggie Brinks. I think I arrested him once.”
“Great. Looks like this time, he pled guilty to a drug charge.”
“Good old Reggie. He never changes.”
“And this guy?” I am not one to be easily intimidated, but just looking at the photograph of Absalom Sykes sent shivers down my spine. And not the good kind of Quinn-induced shivers, either. Absalom was a six-four, two-hundred-and-sixty-pound African American bruiser. When he got out of the van at the cemetery that morning, I remembered thinking I’d seen hams smaller than his fists. He had burning eyes and a tilt to his chin that said trouble as clearly as Reggie’s pit bull tattoo.
“He steals cars for a living,” I told Quinn, reading from the file. “That ought to make him good company.”
“Better than this chick.” While I was preoccupied with quaking at the thought of spending my summer with a guy as scary as Absalom, Quinn had whisked the last photo from the bottom of the pile. He made a face. “Even I wouldn’t mess with this woman.”
I knew just what he meant. The second Sammi Santiago strutted out of that Corrections Department van, I knew we were not going to get along. And it wasn’t just because she was dressed like a tramp, either, though I will admit, her first impression was not a good one. Sammi’s denim skirt was so short, I was surprised the cameras kept rolling when she walked into the office/ tent. Something told me the good folks over at the PBS station would be working overtime that week to make sure every shot they showed of Sammi was from the waist up. Then again, even that might not keep the censors happy, seeing as how Sammi was poured into a brown strapless top made out of some kind of extra-clingy material.
The way I remember it, she was also wearing an ankle bracelet.
And I do not mean the jewelry kind.
Sammi was a foot shorter than me and as thin as a whip. She had funny-colored eyes, sort of tawny, like a cat’s, and she wore her fuzzy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with what looked like a piece of barbed wire. Her shoes?
I quivered at the very thought.
Last I saw her, Sammi was wearing a pair of shiny patent leather Bapes in vivid shades of red and blue. There was a picture of Spider-Man on the back of them. The sneakers looked especially attractive with her fishnet kneesocks.
Oh yeah, Sammi had a style all her own, and attitude galore. I remember that, too, because the moment she saw the TV camera, she dropped a couple f-bombs that nearly made the members of Team One pass out en masse.
“Domestic violence. She beats up on her boyfriend regularly,” Quinn read from the line where Sammi’s crime was listed. “That explains the electronic monitoring device. A lot of batterers are put on house arrest.”
“Then what’s she doing at the cemetery?”
“She’s allowed to work. See, here.” Quinn pointed. “She’s also got to go to anger-management classes. Some nice probation officer somewhere hooked her up with you to give her experience working as part of a team.”
“Lucky me.” I slipped Sammi’s paperwork into the file folder with the others and side-handed the whole thing onto the coffee table. “It’s going to be a long summer. The last thing I need is a bunch of prisoners on my hands.”
“Speaking of prisoners…” Quinn took another sip of wine and looked at me over the rim of his glass. “Heard from your dad lately?”
In a weak moment, I had mentioned my dad to Quinn. Too bad he didn’t get the unspoken message that went along with the story of my dad’s arrest and conviction: that part of my personal life was a little too personal.
I sloughed off his question with a shrug. “Dad calls once in a while. He wants me to visit.”
“You’ll have to apply ahead of time. You must know that by now. He’s been at Englewood how long?”
I didn’t want to rehash it so I glommed onto his previous statement. “Apply?”
“To visit a federal prison? Sure.” He nodded. “You’ve got to be pre-approved, and that means filling out some paperwork. You can get it online.”
It sounded too much like advice, so I did the only proper thing-I ignored it, filing away the information, even if I never intended to use it. Though my wineglass wasn’t empty and the bottle wasn’t far enough away for me to have to get up, I did. I poured another fraction of an inch of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo into my glass. Like it or not, all this talk of prisoners and prisons made me think about my newest woo-woo client. The last I’d seen of him was back at the cemetery when he made me promise I’d look into his theory that he’d been framed for murder.
It seemed a better option than thinking about Dad. Or about Delmar, Crazy Jake, Reggie, Absalom, and Sammi, and how all of them would be waiting for me at the cemetery the next morning.
“You ever hear of a prison warden named Jefferson Lamar?” I asked Quinn.
He sipped and shrugged. “Can’t say I have.”
“He was convicted of murder. Right here in Cleveland.”
Quinn’s a typical cop, stone-faced. But I could tell he was curious by the way he cocked his head. “That’s pretty bizarre. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it in the papers.”
“Well, you might have. If you read the newspaper back in 1985. That’s when he died. I just thought if you knew anything about him…”
“You’re not getting mixed up in something again, are you?” Quinn’s question was as probing as the look he shot my way. That explains why I pretended not to notice. And why he wasn’t about to back off. “Last time you started asking about someone who’d been dead for a while, you ended up getting trussed up like a Thanks-giving turkey and tossed into the lake.”
I didn’t appreciate the turkey reference, but he didn’t give me a chance to point that out.
“And who knows what happened to you in Chicago.” Quinn paused here, giving me a chance-again-to explain everything that had happened the winter before. Just like he’d given me plenty of other chances, plenty of other times. Like I could? Where would I even begin?
Disgusted, he folded his arms over his chipped-from-granite chest. “You’ve told me there was a crazy doctor and a bunch of missing homeless people in Chicago. You said you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That doesn’t begin to explain everything that happened, and in case I need to remind you, you got shot, Pepper. And you nearly died.”
“This Lamar thing is nothing like that.” I turned my back on him when I said this, the better to keep him from seeing the look in my eyes that said I hoped my investigation into Lamar’s life wouldn’t end up being as complicated. Or as bloody. “It’s just that Jefferson Lamar, he’s buried at Monroe Street. In the section we’re going to be restoring. I thought…” Honestly, I hadn’t thought anything. Not about this case, anyway. Not until that very moment. Then, like magic, a plan formed in my head. When I turned back to Quinn, even I was surprised at how smoothly I could tell a fib.
“It’s for the competition,” I said. I scooted back to the couch and sat down again. “Each team has to find out the most about the famous people buried in the section it’s working on. Team One has all these old early settlers buried in their section. It’s going to be a cinch for them, seeing as half of them are probably related to the early settlers and they probably have their portraits hanging in their ballrooms. So far, Lamar is the only person in our section who’s got any sort of interesting background. Like I said, he was a prison warden. And then someone framed him for murder.”
“Framed? What makes you think that?”
Have I mentioned that Quinn doesn’t know I talk to the dead? I mean, honestly, could I tell him? Ever? So far, I’d been pretty good at throwing him off the ghostly scent, mostly because of that whole bit about us never really getting too close to each other. In a purely non-physical way, of course.
I wasn’t about to blow it now.
“I found out a little bit about Lamar from his cemetery files,” I said, lying again for all I was worth. “There was a notation in it. The information must have come from someone who knew him well. This note in his file, it said that even when he was arrested and convicted, he still said he was innocent. He said he’d been framed, but he didn’t know who did it, so he could never prove it.”
“It certainly is interesting.” I could tell he hated to admit it. “But, hey…” Quinn put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer. “You know plenty already. You can put that stuff about how he might have been framed in your report. That will help with the competition, right?”
“I could… It might…” Another thing I might not have mentioned is that I can be just as devious as Quinn. Since I was already sitting next to him, I figured I might as well take advantage of the situation. I tickled my fingers over his thigh. “But I was thinking it might be even better if I could get my hands on some of the original information. You know, like the police files.”
“From back in the eighties?” He was about to drop the whole idea, and I knew it. That’s why I tickled a little more, a little higher. Quinn sucked in a breath.
I moved a little closer. “Those files, they must be somewhere, right? A storage facility? Or maybe they’ve all been put on microfiche or something. You know, like they do with old newspapers at the library. But the information has to exist. It isn’t all that long ago.”
“No, but…” Quinn was done playing games. He wrapped his fingers around my wrist and yanked me closer. His eyes locked with mine and his mouth was only a fraction of an inch away when he asked, “If I get you that file, what do I get in return?”
“What do you want in return?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take, but I knew one thing for sure: Quinn Harrison is a man of his word. I was going to get that file. And a little something extra, in the meantime.
The way I remember it, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Maybe that’s why the next morning, I wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I got to Monroe Street.
I had decided to make Jefferson Lamar’s gravesite our unofficial headquarters. Pretty smart, huh? Something told me I’d be spending a lot of time there, anyway, and this saved me the trip back and forth. With that in mind, I stopped at the tent/office and collected everything I figured we were going to need for the day and sent my team on ahead. When I found them, Sammi was sitting on a low headstone polishing her nails a garish orange that didn’t match her red shorts or the purple T-shirt emblazoned with the picture of some saint. His halo sparkled in the sunlight. Reggie and Delmar each had a shovel, and though they were supposed to wait for further instruction, they’d already started poking around. There were a couple divots of dry earth and brown grass sitting on top of Lamar’s gravestone.
Crazy Jake ignored me completely. Then again, he was a little busy talking to himself while he snapped shot after shot with one of those cardboard disposable cameras.
I stopped in my tracks and stared. Absalom was standing in front of a headstone nearly as tall as him. It was a solid piece of granite shaped into a hulking rectangle. There was a foot-high figure on top of it made from wire and white fabric. It had a head of fuzzy hair that looked like cotton candy. The figure was wearing beads that reminded me of Ella’s. Absalom was pouring it a glass of rum.
“Is… that… I mean… Did you…?” Yes, I stammered. It is so unlike me, but remember, I hadn’t gotten my beauty sleep (though I had gotten a whole lot more). I choked back my surprise and pointed a finger at the thing. “Is that a voodoo doll?”
“You want to make something of it?” Absalom’s voice was a lot like Absalom himself, big and heavy, so no, I didn’t want to make something of it. Instead, I watched as he lit a candle in a yellow votive glass and placed it in front of the doll.
The way I figured it, it was as good a time as any to get down to business.
“OK, people!” I sounded as perky as a phys ed teacher and reminded myself that was not like me, either. It certainly wasn’t the image I wanted to portray, for my team or for the TV cameras. Before Greer showed her gnomey little face, I knew I had to get my act together.
I found a right-height tombstone that was nice and flat, and sat down on it. “We need to come up with a plan,” I said.
Sammi rolled her eyes.
Delmar and Reggie kept digging.
Crazy Jake put his camera three inches from my nose and snapped.
When the light show stopped flashing in my eyes and I could almost see again, I realized Absalom was standing right in front of me, his massive arms folded over his even more massive chest. “You’re not serious, are you?” he asked.
I guess there was something about that booming voice of his (not to mention the whole menacing presence thing) that made his fellow teammates sit up and take notice. One by one, they drifted closer, and suddenly, I was surrounded. There wasn’t room for me to stand, not without getting too close to Crazy Jake. With no choice, I kept my seat and looked up at the felons… er… parolees (or was it probationers?) around me.
“Look, I could throw you a line of bull,” I told them. “But something tells me you’ve all been lied to before, so I’m just going to lay this on the line. You don’t want to be here? Well, I don’t want to be here, either.”
I was trying to be flexible, so I ignored it when Sammie mumbled a curse. I continued.
“None of us have any choice. I’m here because my boss says I have to be here. You’re here…” With Reggie glaring, Absalom staring, and Sammi sneering, this did not seem to be the time to bring up their criminal pasts.
“I’ve never done a cemetery restoration before,” I said instead, and big points for me for being so honest. “So I’m not really sure how this is supposed to work. I do know that those TV cameras will be over here in a little while, and when they are, we should at least try to look like we know what we’re doing.”
“Won’t make no difference.” Delmar scuffed the toe of one sneaker against the bare ground. “You know what’s gonna happen. That TV show is going to make us look like losers. That producer…” He gave the word an acid twist, and I decided right then and there that Delmar was a good judge of character. “She’s gonna make those rich ladies look better than us. No matter what we do.”
“Then I guess we’re going to have to do what we do so well, she won’t be able to do that.”
It was a convoluted answer on my part, and to cover up my inadequacies and try and look in control, I stood. None of my teammates gave an inch. In fact, Reggie took a step closer, his eyes narrowed. Crazy Jake stuck the camera under my nose. “I’m taking pictures,” he said. Lucky for my retinas, he didn’t demonstrate. “Then we’ll know what it looked like. You know, before and after.”
This struck me as a very uncrazy idea. I told Jake to run with it. With him busy and out of the way, I handed out the listing of burials that had been included in the mountain of files Ella had delivered in those tote bags the day before, along with the hand-drawn maps of our section that some volunteer had taken the time to prepare. “Jake’s right,” I said, and for my efforts, I got a creepy kind of smile from him before he snapped another picture of me. “We can’t start to change things until we know what’s here. So let’s each take a portion of our section and compare the headstones and names to what’s on this map.”
Without bothering to take one of the papers I offered, Absalom went back to his voodoo altar.
Reggie and Delmar picked up their shovels.
Sammi snatched one of the maps out of my hand and gave me a snappy, “Whatever,” before she walked away.
“What have you found out?”
Have I mentioned that ghosts don’t show up in real life the way they do on TV or in the movies? I mean, ghosts on TV, when they pop up, there’s usually some sort of spooky music playing. But the truth is, there’s nothing that signals their arrival. One second they’re not there, the next second they are.
One second I was all alone watching my teammates skulk away.
The next second, Jefferson Lamar was standing at my side.
I controlled my little shriek of surprise, and just so nobody thought I was as crazy as Jake, I moved away from his grave. There was nobody around near that dilapidated mausoleum, so I went over there, and I didn’t say a word until I knew I couldn’t be overheard.
“You haven’t exactly given me a lot of time,” I told him.
“You had all night. What were you doing?”
Honestly, did he expect me to answer that?
“These things take time,” I told him. “Your case is more than twenty years old.”
“But you could have gone to the library and read the old newspaper articles,” he said, and I made a mental note of it. It was what a real private investigator would do. “You could have checked out the scene of the crime.”
Another mental note. “I’m going to do all that,” I said, my conscience clear now that he’d made the suggestions and I thought they were good enough to actually follow. “But I’ve got this day job, see, and the TV station is here filming, and-”
I didn’t have a chance to explain the rest of my complicated life to Jefferson Lamar. I mean, how could I when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a fight?
By the time I got there, Absalom, Crazy Jake, and Sammi were standing in a circle, watching Reggie and Delmar go at each other. They were down on the ground, rolling in the dirt, and Reggie had Delmar in a headlock. That wasn’t enough to stop the kid. His teeth were close enough to Reggie’s arm to do some damage, and he took full advantage-and a huge chomp. Reggie screamed and swore a blue streak, and when he loosened his hold, Delmar rolled and kicked.
Crazy Jake jumped out of the way just in time to avoid serious injury, but Delmar’s kung fu-fighter impression wasn’t wasted. He caught Reggie in the jaw with one beat-up Reebok, and Reggie’s head snapped back. He wasn’t down for the count, though.
His eyes narrowed and fiery, his breaths straining, Reggie lunged, and when he did, he looked a whole lot like that pit bull on his forehead. Growling, he grabbed Delmar’s ankle and twisted. Delmar grunted, rolled, and kicked again.
And I knew if I didn’t do something quick, somebody was really going to get hurt-and the whole crazy mess just might get caught on camera.
“Stop! Right now!” I sounded like a desperate kindergarten teacher and, honestly, that’s exactly how I felt. I raced over, and because she wasn’t about to give an inch, I had to nudge Sammi aside to get close. Since I’m about twice her size and she wasn’t expecting it, my push knocked her off her feet. The last I saw of her, she was butt down in a patch of weeds.
Sammi was less than happy, even after I mumbled a hurried, “Sorry.” Her curses were just as loud and colorful as Reggie’s.
And I so didn’t care.
It wasn’t until I was right on top of where they were still tussling in the dirt that I saw Delmar had something pressed to his chest.
The something in question was a dirt-coated box. It was about half the size of a piece of computer paper and made of wood. I have a degree in art history, but believe me, that doesn’t make me an expert in things old and moldy. Even so, I could tell the box had been buried a long time.
I could also see where it came from-there was a hole right next to Jefferson Lamar’s headstone.
Automatically, my interest level ratcheted up a notch. Reggie and Delmar’s beef was small potatoes compared with the too-obvious fact that the box buried near Lamar’s grave might have something to do with him-and with his claim that he’d been framed for a murder he didn’t commit. I may have been taking my life in my own hands, but hey, I had a job to do.
And I wasn’t talking about my job at the cemetery.
With Reggie and Delmar still busy going at it, I made my move. I darted forward, dodged the next punch Reggie threw, and ripped the box out of Delmar’s hands.
“Hey!” Delmar was small and wiry. He was on his feet in an instant, his fists on his hips, his chin stuck out. He was so intent on glaring at me, I wondered if he even realized Reggie had hopped up, too. He was standing at Delmar’s side with the same defiant look in his eyes.
“What the hell you think you’re doing?” Delmar demanded.
“Keeping you from being sent to jail. And you, too.” I turned what I hoped was a fierce look on Reggie. “Somebody finds out you’ve been fighting-”
“Ain’t nobody gonna find out,” Reggie spat. “Not unless you tell ’em.”
“I wasn’t planning on doing that.” It was the truth, so it wasn’t like I was giving in to Reggie’s threat or anything. When he spun away and stalked over to the fence and left a good bit of distance between himself and Delmar, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first I realized that Sammi was still down on the ground. I offered her a hand along with an apologetic smile.
She got to her feet without my help, but not before she tossed me a snappy, “Piss off.”
“Fine.” I backed off and went to stand where I could keep an eye on the entire team. Not that I’m paranoid or anything. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on around here?”
“That idiot took what don’t belong to him,” Reggie sneered.
“Got as much right to that thing as he does,” Delmar added, pointing to the box.
I could see I was getting nowhere. I looked to Absalom for help.
He shrugged. “Don’t like stickin’ my nose in other people’s business,” he said. “It ain’t polite.”
“But it is your business. It’s all of our business. That TV crew is going to come over here and-”
“Who cares what that man-woman thinks of us?” Sammi brushed off the seat of her red shorts. Checking me out, her expression soured. “Who cares what you think? You’re a spoiled little rich girl. You got no idea what real life is like.”
“You think?” Yeah, I was tempted to lay it all on the line: the stuff about my dad and the once-upon-a-time Martin money. The bit about the fiancé who dumped me rather than be associated with my shame. I was even willing to go for broke and mention the ghosts.
I would have done it, too, if I thought it would get me anywhere. But hey, I know a losing cause when I see one. And this one took the cake. Rather than mention that my real life was no doubt more complicated than Sammi could ever imagine-and sound like I was looking for sympathy-I glanced from the box in my hands to the hole near Lamar’s grave.
Automatically, I looked around for Lamar, too, but he was MIA, and didn’t it figure. That’s the thing with ghosts, see. When I want them to leave me alone, they’re all about help me, help me. And when I need some ectoplasmic assistance? Well, that’s when they tend to go wherever it is they go when they’re not bugging me.
With no help coming from the disembodied, I concentrated on the living.
“How’d you find the box?” I asked Delmar.
“He didn’t find it.” Reggie marched over. I swear, there was steam coming out of his ears. “I found it.”
“I saw it first.” Delmar plunked down on a handy headstone. “We was digging around a little bit. And I saw the corner of that box there.”
“I saw it,” Reggie insisted. “I saw it first.”
“Whatever!” I gave his comment all the attention it deserved before I turned back to Delmar.
“I saw it first, and I got it out of that hole,” the kid told me. “What’s that saying about possession being nine-tenths of the law?”
Reggie had no response. Then again, I don’t think Reggie understood the law. Or fractions for that matter. He grunted. “If there’s something valuable in that box-”
“If there is, it’s mine,” Delmar said. His jaw was rigid.
“Not a chance!” Reggie closed in on him. “If you think you can-”
“Hold on!” I stepped between them. “The box doesn’t belong to either one of you. It doesn’t belong to me, either. If it was buried at this grave, then it belongs to this man.” I looked down, as if I had to check the headstone to know who was buried there. “Jefferson Lamar. It belongs to Jefferson Lamar. Or to his family.”
Delmar wasn’t convinced. “Ain’t no dead man needs anything valuable.”
“Maybe there’s nothing valuable in it,” I told them. “Maybe it’s just a nasty old box. Did you ever think of that?”
Delmar hadn’t. Neither had Reggie. I could tell because, suddenly, they were all about keeping their mouths shut.
I saw my opportunity and took it. I hadn’t thought to bring gloves. Too bad. The wooden box was mushy. One corner of it was splintered, too, probably less from time and weather than from where Delmar and Reggie had knocked into it with their shovels. It had a small metal lock on the front of it, but since one side of the box was completely rotted away, opening it wouldn’t be a problem-if I had the nerve to pick away the moldering wood and stick my hand into a box that had been buried underground.
I held my breath, gritted my teeth, and got to work.
Delmar and Reggie stepped closer. So did Absalom and Sammi. Crazy Jake took pictures.
I hoped when he developed them, I wouldn’t look as disgusted as I felt sticking my fingers inside that box.
I picked a piece of fabric out. It was torn and faded, but it looked like it had once been orange. It unrolled, and a fat brown spider dropped to the ground, and it’s not like I’m a chicken or anything, but I was so startled, I jumped back. I was so busy watching that spider scuttle under a nearby rock, I wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t until I saw something silvery and shiny on the ground that I realized that along with the spider, a coin had fallen out of the box. By that time, it was too late.
Absalom bent to retrieve it. “Look at that!”
“What is it?” Delmar asked. “You think it’s real?”
“Heck with real. You think it’s worth something? If it is,” Reggie reminded us, “I found it.”
Crazy Jake took a picture.
Surprise, surprise… Absalom handed me the coin. I held on tight and, fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as dirty as the box it came out of. I buffed it against my jeans and took a good look. “I think it’s silver,” I said. “There’s an eagle on one side of it, and it says here that the coin is worth one dollar.” I flipped it over. “There’s a head of a lady on the other side. It’s dated 1902.”
“That’s old,” Crazy Jake informed us.
“That means it’s worth something. I’m thinkin’ it just might make me rich.” Reggie made a move to snatch the coin out of my hand, but I turned so he couldn’t reach it.
“I don’t know what it might be worth,” I said, “but I think it’s plenty interesting.” They didn’t know that I’d been chatting it up with Jefferson Lamar, of course, so they couldn’t know I was wondering what significance the coin had to him, and why it was buried at his grave. Since I wasn’t about to get into all that, I stuck with what I didn’t have to explain. “We’ve got something unusual here. I think this is going to make us look pretty good in the competition.”
“Who cares about the friggin’ competition,” Sammi bellyached.
“We should care.” OK, I sounded a little too much like a cheerleader, but let’s face it, if any team needed encouragement, it was mine. “Like Delmar said earlier, the producer, Greer, is probably going to suck up to Team One. I’m sure that’s why she decided to start with them today. So we’ve got to make it so she can’t ignore us. This is going to help.”
“If that coin is worth something,” Sammi grumbled, “we should all get a cut.”
“You ain’t listening.” Absalom took a step toward her. Sammi wasn’t about to back down, and either Absalom didn’t notice the fire in her eyes, or he didn’t care. “This is going to make us look good,” he added. “We got ourselves a genuine mystery here, and that TV chick is gonna love that. Bet those rich ladies, they don’t got a treasure like this in their section.”
As if his words were the magic abracadabra that made them appear, we heard rustling through the weeds and the sound of Greer’s squawking as she instructed her cameraman to start filming.
“Let’s not tell them. Not yet, anyway.” Making sure that fat spider was long gone, I retrieved the faded orange fabric, wrapped the coin in it, and tucked it all back in the box. I dropped the whole thing in an especially dense patch of spiny weeds behind Absalom’s voodoo altar headstone, and fluffed the taller weeds so that they wouldn’t look as if they’d been disturbed.
“I’d rather do a little research before we let anybody know what we’ve found,” I said, when what I meant was that I wanted to talk to Jefferson Lamar before I showed the coin to anyone else. “That way when we reveal we have the coin, we can show how good we are at research, too.”
I don’t think any of them agreed with me, but I never had a chance to find out because just then Greer and her cameraman showed up.
“Keep doing what you were doing.” She gestured in a way that told us to get busy and act natural all at the same time. “We just came to see what Team Two is up to.”
She wasn’t kidding when she said we. Team One trailed behind Greer and the cameraman, and even before they stepped into the little clearing near Lamar’s grave, they were mumbling to each other.
“Not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the section we’re working on,” Lucinda Wright commented as she adjusted her picnic basket over one arm. She shook her head sadly.
“Not nearly as promising,” Katherine Lamb said to Gretchen Hamlin.
Bianca didn’t speak a word. She just gave me a look, head to toe, that said she was assessing my fashion sense.
It was the first I realized there were bits of rotted wood and a streak of dirt across the front of my emerald green scoop-necked tee.
“Well…?” Her top lip curled, Greer gave my team a collective look that clearly said we were a disappointment. “You’re supposed to be doing something. Anything. Anything?” This time, her gaze fell on me.
“We were just-”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.” She waved away whatever explanation I was about to give as inconsequential. “We need a scene where we introduce both teams. I thought we could do that now. You know, like you’re working in this section over here…” She waved my team to one side. “And Team Number One…” When she turned to the other team, she smiled in a way she didn’t when she looked at the rest of us. “You’ll come through over there, between that mausoleum and that headstone there with the angel on top and-”
“I thought this was reality TV.”
Greer laughed. Not in a that-was-funny way. More like in a you’re-incredibly-stupid way. She rolled her porpoise eyes. “Get real, Ms. Martin. The appeal of reality TV is that it’s real without being too real. You know what I mean?”
Before I could tell her I didn’t and I never wanted to, she dismissed whatever answer I might give.
“So let’s get you over here, Team One. Mae, you’ll be telling your team all about the cemetery. That way, we’ll be able to provide our viewers with some historical background without hitting them over the head with it. So you’ll want to mention that Monroe Street was officially founded in 1841, but that burials have taken place here since 1818. And remember to say something about how it was an ideal spot for courting. Couples walked the grounds arm in arm!” She sighed. “It was all very beautiful, and very romantic.”
“And yuck!” Really, I was supposed to keep quiet when this sort of nonsense was about to be filmed? “That’s sick and twisted.”
“It’s history.” If Greer’s eyes were lasers, they would have cut right through me. Not so the look she turned on Mae Tannager. “So you’ll be doing all that, and Team Two, you…” As if she hadn’t given any thought to what she was going to do with us, she glanced around. “Over there.” She waved toward the falling-down mausoleum. “Once Mae is done with her background information, that’s when you’ll walk over and we’ll do shots of each of you.” She glanced over my team, and when she got to Sammi, she leaned closer to her cameraman. “Careful with that one,” she said quietly, but not quietly enough. “Better just keep the camera on her face.”
Good thing that camera wasn’t on Sammi right then and there; she gave Greer the finger.
As ordered, we trudged over to the mausoleum to wait. Well, some of us trudged over to the mausoleum. I noticed that Absalom kept his distance, just like I saw that in spite of her one-finger salute, once she was away from the group, Sammi didn’t look as angry as she did upset.
Remember how I said that I knew better than to go chasing after ghosts? Well, I knew that having a heart-to-heart with Sammi was not in my best interests, either. Still, I couldn’t help myself. There was something about seeing tough Sammi with her eyes bright with unshed tears that made me feel like it was my duty, as team captain, to say something to cheer her up. I walked over to where she was leaning against the mausoleum, her leg (the one with the electronic monitoring device on it) bent and one foot against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest.
I smiled, but since she refused to look at me, it didn’t much matter. “Don’t pay any attention to Greer. She obviously wouldn’t know fashion if it came up and bit her in the butt.”
She snorted. “And you would?”
I tried not to take the comment personally. I mean, coming from a woman in red shorts and a purple shirt with a saint on it, how could I? “I know a thing or two about the way to dress.”
“For an old-folks’ country club, maybe.”
“How can you-” I bit off the rest of my comment. Sammi’s opinion was just that, an opinion, and dead wrong, besides. She only said what she did because she was itching for a fight. I refused to be the one to give it to her. I didn’t care enough, in the first place. Plus fighting teammates would make Greer salivate, and who knows what Bianca would think of me if she saw me duking it out with Sammi.
I held my arms at my sides, the better to control my temper. “Greer doesn’t shop where I shop, or where you shop.”
Sammi’s top lip curled. She plucked at her purple top. “You think this kind of quality comes off the rack? I make my own clothes. I design them, too.”
OK, so we didn’t share one iota of the same fashion sense, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t impressed. Suddenly, the whole saint-on-the-shirt thing made sense, too. “You’re name is Sammi Santiago. And Santiago, that means-”
“St. James. Yeah.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “That’s how you can tell it’s one of my own designs. I put St. James on all my stuff somewhere. You speak Spanish?”
“Nah. But I know that much. I know creativity when I see it, too. You making your own clothes, that’s really cool.”
She controlled a smile. “You think so?”
“I think that’s more than I could ever do. It’s way more creative than Greer in that gray suit of hers.”
“Yeah.” Sammi looked toward where we heard the sounds of genteel laughter coming from the section where Greer was filming. “She needs to get rid of those man shirts. If she wore that suit with a bustier-”
“That’s too scary to think about!”
We shared a laugh.
It wasn’t much, but it was a small inroad. Feeling more comfortable with Sammi than I had since she stepped out of that van and into my life, I did my best to make small talk. “You ever think of selling your clothes?” Believe me, I was in team-captain mode here, I wasn’t interested in buying. “There are some boutiques over in the Tremont neighborhood that-”
I guess that was the wrong thing to say. Sammi grumbled a curse and walked away.
As it turned out, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all. It meant I didn’t have to deal with Sammi or with introducing anybody to anybody else when Quinn showed up.
“I thought you’d be working.”
I gave him a look that told him I was. “Didn’t think I’d see you today.”
“Hey, I’m a man of my word.” He was carrying a slim file folder, and he held it up for me to see.
“The file you wanted. The Lamar case, yeah.”
I should have been grateful. I was. Honest. But-
“It’s awfully skinny.” I scrunched up my nose and gave the folder another look. “How can all the information about an entire murder investigation be in such a skinny folder?”
Quinn’s expression reminded me a whole bunch of the one on Sammi’s face before she walked away. “ ‘Thank you’ might be a more appropriate response,” he said.
“Thank you. Why is the file so skinny?”
His lips puckered. Not in the good way they did when he kissed me. “This is what’s called the basic file,” he explained. “There’s one of these kept in the Homicide Unit for every case that’s ever been investigated. It’s not supposed to leave the Justice Center.”
“Thank you.” This time I meant it.
Quinn sloughed it off. “I figured no one else was going to be looking for the file. Not on a murder that old. Especially when someone was tried and convicted. You just going to stand there? Or are you going to take a look?”
I shook away my disappointment and went to stand in the shade of the mausoleum. Quinn came along. “Basic file,” he said, flipping it open. “It tells you-”
“That’s right. Who was murdered, when the call first came in, who was interviewed, who was convicted.”
“I know who was convicted.” I leaned closer for a better look. Not such a bad thing, considering that Quinn was wearing Flavio aftershave, my favorite. When he left my apartment that morning, he was dressed in the navy suit he’d worn to dinner the night before. But he must have stopped home somewhere along the way. His suit was one I’d never seen before. Grey, with pinstripes that were far more subtle than the ones on the suit that Lamar wore. His French-cuffed shirt was a shade of blue that matched the sky overhead, his dusty blue tie was a box pattern of darker and lighter blues, tans, and gray.
I leaned a little nearer. “You got this file for me fast.”
One corner of his mouth pulled into a smile. “Told you I was a man of my word. You wanted what you wanted, I wanted what I wanted, and once I got it…”
I knew better than to go down that road. The last thing I needed was for my teammates-or Greer-to find me looking starry-eyed with Quinn around. Or worse, giving in to the temptation of getting nice and close and reminding him that there was more where that came from, and next time, he wouldn’t have to get me a file to get some.
That was not the kind of publicity the restoration needed, and it would certainly make my favorite Homicide detective less than happy. With that in mind, I took the folder out of his hands and read it over.
“The victim was Vera Blaine. She was twenty-two.” Seeing the information laid out in black and white made me queasy. “He never told me who was killed, or mentioned that she was so young.”
I shook myself out of my thoughts and found Quinn with his head cocked, studying me.
“He. The guy who filled out the papers in Lamar’s cemetery file. You know, the ones that mentioned that Lamar might have been wrongly accused. I just assumed it was a he. And look”-changing the subject was a much better tactic that getting fixated on the fact that my information was coming from the dead guy who’d been convicted of the murder-“it says she was killed at the Lake View Motel in Cleveland. Ever hear of the place?”
Quinn shook his head. “I only hang around in places where there’s trouble. Maybe no one’s been killed there lately.”
“Or maybe the place doesn’t exist anymore.” I read over the address. Even I knew it wasn’t the best part of town. “Twenty-five years is a long time. The motel is probably gone.”
I read the next section of the report. “It looks like the cops interviewed a whole lot of people. Some guy named Steve Ganley, for one. It says here he was Vera Blaine’s boyfriend.”
“And it also says that there’s not one shred of doubt that your guy, Jefferson Lamar, committed the murder. See?” Quinn had obviously been through the file before he came to Monroe Street. He knew what he was looking for. “Lamar didn’t have an alibi. Not one he could substantiate, anyway. The victim worked for him at the Central State Correctional Facility. She was his secretary.”
“Which doesn’t mean he killed her.”
“Of course not.” He took the file out of my hand and flipped to the second page. “But all this does. Look: it’s a list of the evidence. They had him dead to right. Lamar’s personal weapon was used in the shooting. His fingerprints were on it. His blood was on her blouse.”
None of which Lamar had ever mentioned.
“Still, there was that note in the cemetery file. The one about Lamar being framed.” There were only those two pieces of paper in the file, but I turned them both over, just in case I’d missed something. “There must be more information somewhere. What about crime scene photos? And the gun itself? If Lamar says he was framed-” I offered an apologetic smile. “If that note in his file says he was framed, there must be a reason somebody thinks he was framed. How can I find out more?”
“This isn’t enough? If all you’re looking for is information about the crime so you can make your team look good-”
“I am. I will. But wouldn’t it be even more interesting if it turned out that note in the file was right? What if Lamar really was innocent? If we could prove that, we’d really look good in the competition.”
“If you could prove that…” Quinn snatched the file folder back from me. “That would mean you’d have to prove that someone else killed Vera Blaine. And that would mean-”
“That I might piss someone off. Big time.” I swallowed the sour taste in my mouth that came with the realization. “That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t at least look into it.”
“That’s exactly what it means.”
“But, Quinn…” He was about to walk away, which is why I pulled out all the stops and added a playful little purr to my voice. “You know what you got for getting me the basic file. Imagine if you got the real file for me, the whole thing, you know, with the photos and the interviews and-”
“All of that is in some storage room somewhere.”
“Which means I’ll be even more impressed if you can get your hands on it.”
He didn’t have a chance to tell me he would-or wouldn’t-try. Greer’s not-so-soothing voice rang through the section, calling Team Number Two over for the big meet-the-other-team scene. Before I could tell Quinn we’d talk about Lamar’s file again, he was gone, and my teammates and I were being ordered around by Greer.
Walk, talk, smile, stop. Approach Team One. Introduce yourselves. No, that’s not good enough. Start all over again.
Reality TV it was not.
According to Greer, this scene would eat up approximately two minutes of air time. It took two hours to shoot, and by the time it was done, even Team One, in their straw hats and flowing garden dresses, looked a little wilted.
“We’re going to break for lunch.” I took the bull by the horns and made the announcement, and though Greer opened her mouth to object, Team One didn’t give her a chance. Lucinda Wright went over and picked up her picnic basket, and arm in arm with Mae, she led the team out of our section. Greer and the cameraman followed, and my own team shuffled around until I told them to get moving, and I’d meet them in a couple minutes at the closest bar.
I wanted to be alone, see, because I was hoping if I was, Jefferson Lamar would make an appearance.
As soon as everyone was gone, he did. He popped up out of nowhere right next to Absalom’s voodoo altar. “Do you have anything new on the case?”
“I sure do. I saw the file. Looks like you’re as guilty as hell.”
His jaw went rigid.
“Facts are facts,” I told him. “And speaking of facts…” Being careful not to reach into the weeds before I looked to make sure there was nothing in there that was going to surprise me or gross me out, I went for the box.
Only it wasn’t there.
“Somebody stole it!” I said, before I realized Lamar had no idea what I was talking about. I filled him in. “Do you know who buried the box? Do you know who took it?”
His lips thinned. “You are working with the criminal element.”
“Oh, come on. That’s my team. They wouldn’t-” Only I remembered how Reggie and Delmar had fought over the box, and how Sammi had commented that if the coin inside it was valuable, she wanted a share in the profits. I thought about how busy we’d all been in the last couple hours, and how in that time, anyone could have taken the box out of the weeds. It was small enough to hide, and with Greer bossing us around and moving us like chess pieces through the section, nobody would have noticed.
My shoulders sagged. “You didn’t see-”
Lamar shook his head.
“Great.” I dropped onto a low headstone next to Lamar’s. “We had something that made us look good, and now it’s gone. And maybe that box had something to do with your case.” I was hoping this would spark a response from Lamar, but he simply shrugged.
“There was a coin in it.”
“Really?” His eyes lit. “I used to collect coins.”
Now we were getting somewhere. I sat up. “This one was silver, with the head of a lady on it.”
“Sounds like a silver dollar. But as to who would bury it at my grave or why…” Another shrug.
“Well, things aren’t looking good,” I told him. “Maybe that silver dollar was a clue of some sort, but it doesn’t matter now that it’s gone. And as far as that file Quinn got for me… it’s no wonder you were convicted. They had enough evidence to bury you.”
I hadn’t meant it as a pun; even I winced.
Lamar was as stone-faced as ever. “I told you I was framed. Otherwise, the evidence wouldn’t have been that perfect. Not if it wasn’t planted.”
“Then we’re right back where we started.” I threw my hands in the air. “Who did it?”
“A warden makes a lot of enemies.”
“Yeah. Right.” Too restless to sit still, I got up and walked over to his grave. It was the first time I was able to take a closer look. The headstone was gray granite. LAMAR was prominently carved at the top with JEFFERSON in smaller letters below it and to the left, as well as the dates 1933-1985. To the right, it said HELEN, along with the birth date of 1936. There was no death date listed.
“Helen? She’s your wife?”
“And she’s not-”
“No, she hasn’t passed.”
“And does she think you’re guilty?”
He flinched as if he’d been slapped.
“All right then.” My mind made up, I brushed my hands together and headed out for lunch. “A warden makes a lot of enemies, huh? Then we won’t waste our time going down that road. Not yet. We’ll start with the one person who wasn’t your enemy.”
My restoration plan (such as it was) called for us to spend the rest of that week documenting who was buried where in our section. Yes, I know that sounds easy, but believe me, this was one plan that looked better on paper than it did in real life.
For one thing, there were massive problems with Monroe Street itself. (I mean, in addition to the fact that it was a cemetery and that in the best of all possible worlds, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near there in the first place.) Headstones were toppled, names were misspelled in the cemetery records, and while the old, hand-drawn maps we’d been given showed graves where none existed, they didn’t show a bunch of the gravesites we found.
And then there was the garbage.
Through it all, I did my best to rally my troops. It didn’t work, and by the time Friday rolled around, all the weeds that had been pulled, chopped, and hacked down had been pulled and chopped and hacked down by little ol’ me. By that time, I was sunburned, and that meant the freckles on my nose and cheeks were more visible than ever. Three of my fingernails were broken, and I hadn’t had the time-much less the energy-to file them. I had blisters on my hands and a couple dozen scratches on my arms and legs. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, thanks to a wallop of summer heat and the humidity that descended like a wet blanket over Cleveland, my hair was frizzy.
Good thing we were done filming for the week. Even public television viewers shouldn’t have to see me like that. It was even better that Quinn had been assigned to a new high-profile case. (A city councilman, a dead stripper… need I say more?) He was going to be plenty busy for a while, and that meant we wouldn’t be seeing each other any time soon. I was too exhausted for seduction.
Which didn’t mean I was going to sit back and do nothing. I promised myself a deep conditioning when I got home, and on Saturday afternoon, I headed out to talk to Helen Lamar.
Within twenty minutes of leaving my apartment, I was in the city’s Tremont neighborhood. It was the area I’d mentioned to Sammi earlier that week, and as I cruised around looking for the address listed in the phone book, I saw some of the boutiques I’d talked about and she’d ignored. Not that I was taking that personally or anything. If the girl wanted to turn her back on a career in fashion and be a batterer on house arrest for the rest of her life, that was her business.
Mine was getting to the bottom of Jefferson Lamar’s mystery, and with that in mind, I concentrated on my driving. Tremont is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, and every once in a while, somebody gets it into their head to revitalize it. This was one of those times. Great boutiques stood side by side with trendy restaurants and bars, abandoned buildings, brand-spanking-new condos, and hundred-year-old homes that ranged from Victorian mansions to workers’ cottages.
Helen Lamar lived not far from Lincoln Park, the couple blocks’ worth of greenery that is the center of the neighborhood. Her house was one of those blue-collar cottages, small and neat, with steps that led up to a porch that ran along the side of the house. The yard was tiny and immaculate. It was surrounded by a cyclone fence that had been recently painted. The shiny silver made my eyes hurt. Squinting, I pushed open the gate and stepped onto a slate walk bordered by red roses and white petunias.
I’d already decided what I was going to say to Helen, so when a tiny woman with cropped gray hair and wearing white shorts, an orange T-shirt, and yellow flip flops opened the door, I was ready for her. I’d brought along one of the five hundred business cards Ella had made for me when I started my job at Garden View. Since I didn’t usually want anyone to know where I worked, I had plenty, so I didn’t mind giving one away. Besides, I was hoping the card made me look official. I handed one to Helen. Her eyes were a soft blue, and she looked from the card to me a little uncertainly. “I’m not interested in a burial plot, if that’s what you’re selling. I’ve already got my plot. At-”
“Monroe Street. Yes, I know.”
The uncertainty in her eyes shifted to wariness. As if she thought I’d brought along an army of thugs and was planning a home invasion, she looked beyond me.
“I work at Garden View. As a tour guide.” I brought her attention back to the matter at hand by tapping one broken fingernail to the words printed on my card. “This summer, we’re participating in a restoration project at Monroe Street. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m doing research, see, and the section I’m working in-”
“Is where Jeff is buried.” She might be elderly, but Helen was obviously as sharp as a tack. She followed my long-winded explanation to its logical conclusion, weighing the card in one hand while she gave me another once-over. “If you’re looking for information so you can sensationalize the whole thing-” “It’s nothing like that.”
She thought about it for a moment before she gestured toward the white wicker couch and rocker on the porch. “Then have a seat. I’ll get iced tea.”
While she was gone, I settled myself and got out the legal pad I’d brought along for notes. By the time she was back, I was ready for her. She, it seemed, was ready for me, too.
“If you want someone to tell you the police knew what they were doing and that they did the right thing, you’ve come to the wrong place,” she said. She poured iced tea, her voice as old-lady pleasant as ever. But hey, I’m no dummy. I didn’t fail to catch the iron undertone in her words. “Jeff was innocent.”
“That’s what he-” I drowned my impulsive comment with a gulp of iced tea. It was made from powered mix and too sweet, and I choked, gagged, and swallowed. “I thought if I talked to you, I’d get the other side of the story,” I said. “I thought-”
There was the whole thing about the competition, of course, so I could have started my explanation there. I would have, if Helen hadn’t put down the iced tea pitcher and leaned forward in the rocker, her elbows on her thighs, her fingers steepled beneath her chin. Those blue eyes of hers just about flashed a challenge at me.
In real life, I am not a dishonest person. But more often than not when it comes to ghosts, I find myself not just stretching the truth, but ignoring it altogether. I mean, can anyone blame me? That doesn’t explain why, this time, I opted for honesty. Mostly.
“There’s a note in the cemetery records. I don’t know who left it. It says there was some doubt about Mr. Lamar’s guilt.” “Really?” Her laugh was cynical in a way that made me realize that if I wasn’t careful, she’d see right through me. “No one ever asked me to make a note in Jeff’s cemetery file. And I can’t imagine anyone else took the time. As far as I remember-and just so you know, young lady, my memory is very good-I was the only one in Cleveland who believed Jeff was innocent.”
“You still do.”
She hadn’t touched her iced tea. Now, she picked up her glass and held it between the palms of her hands. The glass was sweaty but she didn’t seem to mind, not even when a drop of condensation trickled through her fingers.
She stared at her hands. “It won’t bring him back.”
“But if we could clear his name-”
She stopped me cold with a look. “Why do you care?”
I set my glass down on top of a copy of the morning’s newspaper that was on a table next to the couch. “There’s a competition involved with the restoration. We’re going to be on TV. The show premiers tomorrow night.”
She was not as impressed as I hoped. In fact, she wasn’t impressed at all.
Like I could blame her? My smile felt as feeble as my explanation. “I’m the captain of one of the teams. The more we find out about the people buried in our section of the cemetery, the better we’ll look. If we could clear Mr. Lamar’s name-”
“So you don’t care. Not really.”
“I care because I want to win. Because it’s going to be on TV, and a few people might actually see it. The other team is made up of garden club ladies, see, and I’ve got these prisoners on parole. Or probation. Or whatever. And-”
“But you don’t really care. Not about Jeff.”
Did I? I didn’t want to. Believe me when I say this: I did so not want to care. But I did. I do. Partly because like all the ghosts I’d met, Lamar had sucked me into what was left of his life, and I knew he wouldn’t leave me alone until I did what I had to do. But mostly…
Well, mostly because it just wasn’t fair the way the ghosts I’d met had been murdered. I mean, let’s face it, that’s just lousy luck, and an awful way to die. In Lamar’s case, things weren’t any better. In fact, I suspected they were worse. Jefferson Lamar struck me as the kind of guy who didn’t like the world to think of him as a killer, and these days (except for Helen, of course), that was pretty much the only thing anyone remembered about him.
None of this was anything I could reveal to Helen, so instead, I asked her, “How can I care about your late husband? He died when I was just a little kid. I never knew him. I’ve never met you before. I don’t know the person who was killed and-”
“Vera. Vera Blaine.” Thinking back, Helen’s gaze traveled somewhere above my head, her eyes misty. “She was a pretty girl. Not very bright.” She shifted her gaze back to me. “Jeff never slept with her.”
Honestly, I’d never considered the sex angle, I guess because Lamar was middle-aged, Vera was younger than me, and the thought of them gettin’ it on was too icky for words. But if they had a relationship, it was a not-so-important fact that Lamar had never bothered to mention. I caught a whiff of scandal and glommed onto it. It was more than I had to go on before. “Is that what they said?” I asked Helen. “Was that what they claimed as motive? That he and Vera-”
“Were lovers? Well, not in so many words, not in the newspapers, anyway. Even in the eighties, the media wasn’t as aboveboard about things like that. The newspapers mentioned that Jeff and Vera were friends. That’s all people needed to hear to make their own assumptions. There were plenty of hints, but the ‘A’ word- affair-wasn’t trotted out until we got to court. A couple people testified that they thought it was possible. They never had any proof, mind you. There were also people who said Jeff was the jealous type. Where they got that from, I don’t know. They said they’d heard that Vera broke off the affair with Jeff to go back to her boyfriend. Nobody had a speck of proof. There was no proof to have. In truth, Jeff and Vera weren’t even friends. She worked for him, as his secretary at Central State. She’d only taken the job three or four months earlier. He barely knew her.”
She answered with a shrug. It wasn’t that she didn’t know. It was that she didn’t understand. “Ugly rumors can take on a life of their own. Maybe you’re too young to have learned that yet. Once someone mentioned that there was something… romantic…”-she gave the word a funny twist-“between Jeff and that girl, everyone just assumed it was true. They claimed that’s how she ended up in that motel here in town, that she and Jeff used to meet there from time to time, and that one of those times, things got out of hand. They said he shot her.”
“They found his gun at the scene.”
Her head came up. “You know that, do you? You’ve been reading the old newspaper articles.” “Something like that. They said his gun was there and-”
“He always kept it in his desk at our home near the prison. The drawer was locked. He hadn’t checked it for a while. I mean, why would he? Then when the police came around and asked to see it, well, of course, he went right for it. That was the first he realized it had been stolen.”
“And the cops weren’t buying that.”
It wasn’t a question so she shouldn’t have felt obligated to answer. She did, anyway. “That was the chief evidence they had against him. Jeff’s fingerprints were on the gun. Of course they were; it was his.”
“And his blood was on Vera’s blouse.”
“Jeff had cut his hand at work earlier that day. Vera helped him bandage the wound.” “And left for a date two hours away in Cleveland without bothering to change her clothes?” This was curious, because changing into something that didn’t have my boss’s blood on it was the first thing I would have done before meeting a guy in a motel. Before Helen could think I was accusing anybody of anything, I added, “That’s just weird. I wonder why she was in such a hot hurry to get to Cleveland.”
“I asked the police the same thing when I heard about the blood. I told them Jeff had told me about the way he’d cut his hand. Of course, the police weren’t very forthcoming. They didn’t have an adequate theory about why, if Jeff and Vera were having an affair, they needed to come to Cleveland to do it, either. You’d think if you were sleeping with your boss, you wouldn’t want to drive so far to do it.”
“Or you would because then it would be less likely that you’d get caught.” I was thinking out loud. I should have known better, so I offered Helen a smile of apology. “Just trying to think the way they were thinking,” I said. “If Mr. Lamar supposedly killed Vera because he was jealous-”
“Those rumors were all part of the frame-up.”
Honestly, had I been talking to anybody else, I would have told her to get real, come to grips with the fact that her husband was a cheating creep and a murderer, and get on with her life.
If I hadn’t heard the frame-up theory from the dead guy in question.
Her laugh was anything but funny. “Some people have overactive imaginations. That’s why they believed that nonsense about Jeff and Vera. Others might have been paid to say what they said on the stand. It’s possible, don’t you think? I told the police that, but honestly, I don’t think they believed me. Still others… There’s a lot of pettiness and jealousy in the world. You’ll learn that, too.” She heaved a sigh at the same time she hauled herself out of the chair, and without another word, she disappeared into the house.
I wondered if our interview was over, and I was about to chalk the whole thing up to bad timing when she came back to the porch carrying a framed eight-by-ten photograph of the man I’d been talking to at the cemetery. In the picture, Jefferson Lamar was wearing the same pin-striped suit I’d seen him in. His tie was plain and dark. His glasses were high up on the bridge of his nose. The thick black frames weighed heavy on his face and made it look as if he didn’t have any eyebrows.
Helen put the photo in my hands. “Does that look like the kind of a man who would kill somebody?”
I didn’t need to look at the picture, but I did, just so she wouldn’t get suspicious. “People kill people every day,” I said. “I can’t say for sure, but I bet they don’t all look like killers.”
“Not Jeff.” She took the photo, and before she sat back down, she set it on the table next to me so that Lamar was staring right at me. “He was a good man. He was honest and ethical. He-” Helen’s voice caught on a lump of emotion and she took a drink of her tea. “He believed in justice. He believed in the system. He thought criminals could be reformed, that he could help change their lives. He wasn’t the kind of man who would take another life.”
“You had him buried in Cleveland, not near Central State.” It was something I’d planned to mention later in our conversation, but this seemed as good a time as any. “I would have thought-”
“We were both born in Cleveland, and there was nothing keeping us near Central State. Nothing but Jeff’s job. Once he was arrested…” Helen didn’t fill in the blanks. She didn’t need to. “My parents lived right here in this house, and they were elderly. It made sense for me to stay with them. I helped out around here, and I was close enough to downtown so I could visit Jeff during the trial. Once he was convicted…” A wave of pain crossed her face, and suddenly, not even her cheery T-shirt or her flip-flops could keep her from looking old and frail. “He didn’t think it was possible,” she said. “All the time the police questioned him, he understood they were just doing their jobs. He was cooperative and tolerant. He said they were only eliminating him so they could concentrate on finding a truly viable suspect. Then when he was arrested… And all through the trial…” Her shoulders rose and fell.
“I knew he didn’t do it, and he kept telling me my faith in him was all that mattered. But I could see that the publicity and the stain on his reputation was eating him up inside. He never once stopped believing in the integrity of the criminal justice system, you see. He knew he was innocent, so he never imagined the system would let him down and that he’d be found guilty. But then when he was-”
“He went to prison. Not to-”
“Central State? Oh, no. They’d never send a warden back to his own prison. Not as one of the inmates. Not that it mattered in the end.” Again, her shoulders rose, but this time when they dropped, she shuddered. “He had such a strong belief in the right way of things, such a firm notion that the system was good and that it was just. It broke his heart seeing that it failed him. He was embarrassed, and he was demoralized. He died of a heart attack in his sleep his first night in prison.”
This was another bit of the story Lamar had failed to mention, and as much as it annoyed me not to have all the details a detective needs to solve a case, I guess I understood why. A warden had to be tough, and tough guys didn’t die of broken hearts.
Rather than think about it and get all mushy, I concentrated on my case. “Do you know who could have done this?” I asked Helen. “Who would have wanted to frame your husband?”
“A warden makes a lot of enemies.” It was the same thing I’d heard from Lamar. “It’s hard to even know where to begin thinking about it. Believe me, I’ve tried. For more than twenty years.”
“And so what do you think?”
She gave me a half smile. “I wish I knew what to tell you. I’ve been over it in my head a couple million times.”
“Your husband never mentioned names? I mean, prisoners who might have had it in for him? Or employees with grudges?”
“Oh, he’d come home and say there had been problems. He would say some of the inmates were more trouble than others. Or he’d mention that he had some personnel crisis to deal with. But he never mentioned names. He didn’t want to bring that much of the job home with him. You know, so that I wouldn’t worry.”
Wondering where to take my questions next, I drummed my fingers against my legal pad. That’s when I remembered the missing silver dollar.
“He collected coins.”
As if she’d touched an electric line, Helen shot up in her chair. “My goodness! I’d almost forgotten. How on earth-”
“It must have been mentioned in one of those newspaper articles I read,” I told her.
“Well, they were right. Though it wasn’t a lifelong interest or anything. That was the thing about Jeff.” Her expression softened and a smile touched her lips. “He’d get it in his head to get a new hobby every once in a while. It was coins for a couple years, then model trains. I think he tried stamp collecting when he was a boy, too. I bet I still have some of the coins packed away in the attic. Not that they’re valuable or anything. At least not that I know of. A couple wheat pennies, a few quarters from when quarters were all silver and didn’t contain any copper. Things like that.” She looked my way. “It’s funny that you found that mentioned in the newspaper. It’s such an insignificant fact about Jeff. Do you think it’s important?”
I didn’t, and even if I did, I didn’t want to explain about the coin at the grave. For all I knew, my team was guilty of something for not only digging up the coin, but for not turning it over to whoever we should have turned it over to before it got stolen.
“Just trying to get a sense of what kind of person he was,” I said. “You didn’t ever do things like… oh, I don’t know… like leave coins at his grave or anything, did you?” Helen laughed. “Good heavens, no! Jeff wouldn’t have liked that. He wasn’t cheap, but he was careful with our money. He would have called that a waste. And he wouldn’t have been happy about me visiting his grave, either. Not in that area of town. I did for a while, but…”
I knew what she was imagining: the beat-up neighborhood, the trash, the crime.
“I’m glad to hear you’re fixing the place up.” Helen rose, and I figured our interview was over, so I got up, too. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help. If there’s anything else I can do…”
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. If only I knew how to take her up on it. As I gathered my things, a thought occurred and I pounced on it.
“You said there were people who were jealous of your husband. Do you think-”
“That they’d arrange anything as elaborate as framing him for murder?” She cocked her head, thinking. “That would take a special kind of evil, wouldn’t it?”
“But you don’t think it’s totally impossible.”
She shook away whatever she was thinking and led me to the steps. “Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. But believe me, if I thought Lenny Fitzpatrick was capable of that sort of thing-”
It was the first she’d mentioned a name, and I wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. “Lenny Fitzpatrick? He was-”
“The assistant warden at Central State when Jeff was in charge. Lenny was efficient and competent, but he didn’t have Jeff’s zeal for rehabilitation. Or Jeff’s brains. We never thought he’d rise above his job as assistant, but you know how it goes. People are often promoted above the level of their competence. Lenny got the warden’s job after Jeff was arrested.”
This was interesting, and though it wasn’t likely I’d forget, I made a note of it on my legal pad. “I can’t say it would do any good, but I don’t think it would hurt to go talk to this Lenny guy. I don’t suppose you have any idea where he is these days, do you?” “Oh, certainly! He’s still the warden at Central State.”
The news hit me like a punch to the stomach. “You mean, if I wanted to see him, I’d have to visit the prison to do it?”
Helen laughed. Maybe she wasn’t used to seeing anyone go instantly green at the mention of prison. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Not to worry,” she said. “I heard that Lenny was recently injured in a motorcycle accident. He’s recovering nicely, but the hospitals are far better here in Cleveland than they are out in the sticks where the prison is located. He’s doing his rehab at the Cleveland Clinic.”
As I walked away and got back in my car, I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure I’d ended up with more questions than I did answers from my little talk with Helen Lamar, but was that such a bad thing? I had one more person to talk to, plus I’d dodged the prison bullet.
To my way of thinking, that made it a successful afternoon.
Helen laughed. “Good heavens, no! Jeff wouldn’t have liked that. He wasn’t cheap, but he was careful with our money. He would have called that a waste. And he wouldn’t have been happy about me visiting his grave, either. Not in that area of town. I did for a while, but…”
I knew what she was imagining: the beat-up neighborhood, the trash, the crime.
“I’m glad to hear you’re fixing the place up.” Helen rose, and I figured our interview was over, so I got up, too. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help. If there’s anything else I can do…”
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. If only I knew how to take her up on it. As I gathered my things, a thought occurred and I pounced on it.
“You said there were people who were jealous of your husband. Do you think-”
“That they’d arrange anything as elaborate as framing him for murder?” She cocked her head, thinking. “That would take a special kind of evil, wouldn’t it?”
“But you don’t think it’s totally impossible.”
She shook away whatever she was thinking and led me to the steps. “Sometimes my imagination runs away with me. But believe me, if I thought Lenny Fitzpatrick was capable of that sort of thing-”
It was the first she’d mentioned a name, and I wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. “Lenny Fitzpatrick? He was-”
“The assistant warden at Central State when Jeff was in charge. Lenny was efficient and competent, but he didn’t have Jeff’s zeal for rehabilitation. Or Jeff’s brains. We never thought he’d rise above his job as assistant, but you know how it goes. People are often promoted above the level of their competence. Lenny got the warden’s job after Jeff was arrested.”
This was interesting, and though it wasn’t likely I’d forget, I made a note of it on my legal pad. “I can’t say it would do any good, but I don’t think it would hurt to go talk to this Lenny guy. I don’t suppose you have any idea where he is these days, do you?”
“Oh, certainly! He’s still the warden at Central State.”
The news hit me like a punch to the stomach. “You mean, if I wanted to see him, I’d have to visit the prison to do it?”
Helen laughed. Maybe she wasn’t used to seeing anyone go instantly green at the mention of prison. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Not to worry,” she said. “I heard that Lenny was recently injured in a motorcycle accident. He’s recovering nicely, but the hospitals are far better here in Cleveland than they are out in the sticks where the prison is located. He’s doing his rehab at the Cleveland Clinic.”
As I walked away and got back in my car, I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure I’d ended up with more questions than I did answers from my little talk with Helen Lamar, but was that such a bad thing? I had one more person to talk to, plus I’d dodged the prison bullet.
To my way of thinking, that made it a successful afternoon.
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By the time I got to Monroe Street on Monday morning, there was a line of cars parked outside the stone archway that led into the cemetery. There were also people-two and three at a time in tight little groups-standing on the sidewalk outside the six-foot iron fence.
But things got even weirder.
Just as I got out of my car, I felt someone watching me.
I turned to see a man standing across the street just at the spot where the sunshine met the shadows of a boarded-up house. He was middle-sized and middle-aged. I didn’t recognize him, and he was so bland, I wouldn’t know him again if I tripped over him. When I looked his way, he stepped into the shadows. I twitched away the uneasy feeling that crawled up my spine, and kept right on walking. I didn’t expect to bump into Ella.
“Can you believe this?” She met me as I was about to head out into the wilderness that was the cemetery. Her eyes were as bright as the glimmery earrings and beads she wore with her yellow sundress. “I had to stop and see you. I know Jim is anxious for some feedback. But really, Pepper, did you expect this?” She smiled and waved when we passed a group of middle-aged ladies.
I may have been baffled (OK, I was plenty baffled), but I had a plan for the day, and there was no way I was going to let whatever was happening deter me. Part of that plan included cruising the perimeter of Team Number One’s section. I wanted to see what they were up to and what they’d accomplished while I was breaking my back yanking weeds the week before. I also wanted to look around my own section to see if there was any evidence of what might have happened to the box and coin we’d found at Lamar’s grave and who might have swiped it. I hadn’t seen anyone leave with the box. I hoped that meant it was still around the cemetery somewhere.
Impressive, yes? But my planning did not stop there. I was going to the hospital at lunchtime to visit Lenny Fitzpatrick, so I’d dressed even more carefully than usual that morning in skinny jeans and a just-sporty-enough-for-manual-labor tank in a shade of olive I knew looked perfect with my fiery hair. Not incidentally, as long as I looked that good, I was hoping to run into Bianca just to show her what a top-notch fashion consultant I could be.
With all this spinning around in my head and Ella still walking at my side, I turned off the drive and into the undergrowth toward Team One’s section, but once we were there, I hardly noticed what they’d gotten done. I was too distracted by the elegant, screened tent that had been set up for their supplies. It was complete with a cloth-covered table, crystal drinking glasses, and five picnic baskets, no doubt packed with tasty lunches. The second thing that caught my attention was Mae being interviewed by a reporter. Greer, of course, was recording the whole thing for posterity.
Watching me watch them, Ella put a hand on my shoulder. “You didn’t see the show last night, did you? Pepper, how could you miss something so important?”
“I tried to watch.” I cringed at the memory, and my stomach flipped the way it had the night before when I sat down and turned my TV to the local PBS station. “I saw the opening. You know, the one where the words Cemetery Survivor float across the screen. I bet Greer thought of the name of the show. She’s the only one dumb enough to think of anything that boring.”
“That’s all you saw?”
“I turned it off,” I admitted. “I even unplugged the TV. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone seeing me in a show that stupid. I couldn’t stand the thought of watching myself in a show that stupid. My mother called from Florida three times so I could tell her what was going on. I didn’t answer my phone. Two of my aunts called after the show was over and left messages about how cute it was and how good I looked. I didn’t talk to them, either. My only consolation is that they watched because they felt obligated. Nobody else could possibly have-”
“So where do you suppose all these people came from?”
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked around some more. There were a few people hanging around on the sidewalk outside Team One’s section. They were polite and apparently interested in what was going on. A couple of them had cameras.
“You’re not telling me these people actually…?” It was too weird, even for my brain to wrap itself around. I glanced from the lookers-on to Ella’s sparkling presence. “People watched? They… they actually care?”
She grinned from ear to ear. At the same time, she looped an arm through mine and piloted me toward my section. “It’s amazing how fast word travels. But don’t get carried away, there’s good news and bad news,” she said, in that motherly way of hers. “The bad news is that the judges awarded the first ten points of the competition to Team One. They said they were more organized and got more accomplished last week.”
I swallowed this bitter pill because it was, after all, the absolute truth.
“And the good news?”
“Well, the good news!” Ella beamed. “According to the station, they got hundreds of calls for more information before the show ever aired. And they’ve gotten even more calls this morning. So many people are interested, they’ve scheduled a repeat of the show in prime time on Thursday night. Isn’t it fabulous?”
I meant this just the way I said it. It was improbable that anyone would have wasted their Sunday night with the likes of Cemetery Survivor. It was pretty pathetic, too. Ella took my unbelievable to mean something more like cool. Which would explain why her smile never wilted.
“The publicity is priceless,” she said, nearly swooning. “If we’ve got this sort of a following after only one episode, imagine what’s going to happen next week.”
I was still trying to work my way through the weirdness of the whole thing. “It’s a fluke,” I said, convinced. “There may have been a few losers who watched the show, but-”
I heard the commotion before I was close enough to see what was going on, and the noise brought me up short. I turned, all set to ask Ella what was up, but she marched me right along, and like the little engine that could, she didn’t stop, not until we ducked under the branches of an overhanging tree and stepped into the section assigned to my team.
I took one look around and nearly keeled over. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Ella giggled. “Does it look like I’m kidding you?”
“No. But…” Feeling a whole lot like Dorothy when she walked out of that black-and-white house and into a technicolor Oz, I stepped closer to the scene. There were bigger crowds here where my team would be working, mostly women, and they held signs that said things like DELMAR, WILL YOU MARRY ME? and
REALLY ANY WONDER THAT
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ella didn’t know which sign I was looking at, but she didn’t care. She laughed. “Don’t you get it? You’ve got groupies!”
It had to be someone’s sick idea of a joke.
But it wasn’t. The closer I got, the more I realized that the people on the other side of the fence were there because of us. A couple people clapped when we walked by. An elderly woman brought cupcakes and insisted I take them. I would have handed them right off to Ella if she hadn’t been so busy basking in the glow of our sudden notoriety. So were Reggie and Delmar. At least they weren’t fighting. Instead, they were standing side by side, talking to a couple cute little chicas who were hanging on their every word. Jake was taking pictures. Absalom was over near his voodoo altar eyeballing the crowd with suspicion. And Sammi…
I looked around, but I didn’t see her anywhere.
At least not until I heard her scream, “Son of a…”
I scrambled over in the direction the voice was coming from, pushed through a couple shaggy evergreens, and found Sammi near the fence. There was a man on the other side of it. He was taller than her, as thin as a Dolce & Gabbana belt, and he was wearing a black Metallica T-shirt. He had a thick chain hanging from one pocket of his low-slung jeans and a tattoo on his left arm. It was a red she-devil in a short, short mini-skirt and a revealing low-cut blouse. The name “Sammi” was written over it.
“Oh no!” I dropped the cupcakes on the closest headstone and hurried forward. “It’s her boyfriend,” I told Ella, who came huffing and puffing behind me. “If he’s going to cause trouble-”
Maybe he was. We never had a chance to find out. Before we got close enough to intervene, Sammi reached a hand through the fence, wrapped her fingers around the man’s throat, and squeezed so hard, her knuckles turned as white as skeleton bones.
Ella’s gasp of horror was overshadowed by Sammi’s shout. “You seein’ her again?” She was loud enough to attract attention, and remember, we already had an audience. Even the girls with Delmar and Reggie abandoned them to see what the excitement was all about.
“I’m gonna kick your ass, Virgil,” Sammi yelled. “You think you gonna two-time me with Carmela, you got another thing comin’.” The whole time she yelled at him, Sammi tightened her fingers around Virgil’s throat. By the time I got close enough to do anything about it, his eyes were bulging and his face was a not-so-pretty shade of red.
“Sammi!” I stepped closer, but with her free hand, she swatted me away, and she might have been small, but Sammie had punch. I staggered back and would have gone down in a heap if I didn’t slam into the brick wall that was Absalom. I steadied myself, doing my best to sound calm and reasonable when I felt anything but. “This is not a good thing, Sammi,” I said. “Let him go.”
“Oh, I’m gonna let him go, all right.” Just like that, she released Virgil and gave him a shove all at the same time. He flew back, lost his footing, and went down on the sidewalk.
“Right where you belong,” Sammi screamed. “In the dirt.”
It didn’t take long for our groupies to take sides. They applauded Sammi and yelled at Virgil. It did nothing for his mood.
“You think you can do that to me?” Virgil pulled himself to his feet. “You think I ain’t gonna tell your probation officer what you just done?”
“Yeah? Right, go ahead!” She tossed her head. “And don’t forget to tell her that if I ever see you with Carmela again, you gonna be sorry you was ever born.”
“Uh, Pepper…” At my right shoulder, Ella’s voice was small and tentative. I guess she didn’t want me to be the last one to know that Greer had arrived with cameraman in tow. Oh yeah, they’d gotten the whole thing on film. I could tell because Greer was drooling. I dropped my head into my hands.
“Oh, dear.” Ella’s face paled. “Do you think this will hurt our ratings?”
I didn’t have the heart to see her suffer, so I patted her shoulder. “Drama is what makes people watch TV shows, right? We’re just giving them what they want. Next week, I bet we get twice as many fans.”
And because I was afraid I was right and didn’t want to think about it, I stepped between Sammi and the fence, the better to get her mind off Virgil. I gestured to my team and they gathered around, and since I had their attention for once, I pounced on the opportunity and handed out their assignments for the day. Greer liked this. I could tell, because after she told her cameraman to make sure he got a shot of Virgil climbing into his car and peeling rubber down the street, she had him follow me around.
“Sammi and Reggie over there,” I said. Along with a map of our section, I handed them a spray bottle full of water. “We’ve got to figure out a way to decipher some of those worn headstones and if we spray them with water, the carving will show more clearly.” Ella had called on Saturday night to offer this friendly advice, and seeing that I was actually following it, she was all smiles again.
“Absalom…” I turned his way. “Why don’t you and Delmar…” Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted them to do. Ella’s suggestions had stopped at the water bottle. “Maybe you could-” With no particular plan in mind, I reached for a sketchbook lying nearby. It flipped open, and I was surprised to find a gorgeous watercolor drawing of our section.
Only it wasn’t.
Our section, I mean.
The drawing showed neat paths, beautiful plantings, flowering shrubs. There was a bench in a clearing that was now empty, a small trickling fountain beside it. I glanced from the picture to my team. “What in the world…? Where…?”
“You like it?” Delmar shifted from foot to foot, his cheeks as red as the geraniums in the drawing.
It was the first time I realized he took some pride in the picture. “Did you…?” I checked out the picture again and tipped it so that the members of my team-and the camera-could see it, too. “Delmar, did you draw this?”
You’d think a kid who had the guts to sign his name to graffiti on a school wall would be less shy. Delmar tried to control a smile. “It’s not perfect,” he said. “I was just messing around, you know, over the weekend, and I was thinking about this place and what it looked like and how maybe we could change it.”
“It’s wonderful.” I wasn’t kidding. The drawing was nicely done, the colors were perfect, the detail…
I took another look. “If we could make our section look like this-”
“We’d win for sure.” Absalom’s comment came on the end of a sigh of admiration.
“You’re good, dude!” Reggie slapped Delmar on the back. “Now you draw me on that park bench with that little number back there…” He poked a thumb over his shoulder to where the two girls were still watching. “Now that, brother, would be a picture I’d want to see!”
Even Crazy Jake laughed. Sammi, it should be noted, did not. Still steamed from her encounter with Virgil, she was breathing hard and shooting death-ray looks in the direction where she’d last seen him.
“Sammi?” I dared to touch a hand to her arm. “Why don’t you go along with Delmar,” I said. “You two can-”
“Don’t need you to tell me what to do.” Sammi spun around and stalked away. “Don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.”
When I made to go after her, Absalom put a hand out to stop me. “She knows she screwed up. She don’t need you reminding her. Let her be.”
It was a better plan than mine, which was to read her the riot act.
I backed off, and big surprise, my teammates actually went off in all directions, their assignments in their hands. I seriously doubted they’d make any headway-on anything-but for now, with the cameras rolling, at least they put on a good show. When Greer took off after them, I saw my opportunity. I told Ella I’d talk to her later and left her to worry if violence would help or hurt our ratings while I went off to do a little sleuthing. This time, I wasn’t going to interview anyone or even think about Jefferson Lamar. Not directly, anyway. Instead, I was on the lookout for the missing coin.
I saw a backpack I recognized as Delmar’s tucked just inside the open door of the moldy mausoleum, and I headed that way. There was no one around when I slipped inside and found that, somehow, my team had gotten their acts together enough to realize that the mausoleum was the perfect place to leave their belongings. No, it wasn’t anywhere near as snazzy as the tent the ladies of Team One had pitched (not by themselves, I was sure), but the mausoleum was cooler than outside and nice and shady in the corners farthest from the partially caved-in roof. In addition to the backpack, I found one of those personal-sized coolers with a photograph of Jake duct taped to the top of it, a bag from McDonald’s, and a purse made out of a vinyl tablecloth with blue butterflies and orange daisies on it. No mystery about who that belonged to.
I worked quickly and looked through everything in a matter of minutes. Though I found a stash of hash in Delmar’s bag, a half-eaten Egg McMuffin in the sack, and more lipstick than even I carried (none of it especially suited to her complexion) in Sammi’s purse, there was no sign of the wooden box or the coin.
Really, did I expect there to be?
I grumbled my annoyance and took the opportunity for a bit of a break. This particular mausoleum was older than most of the ones at Garden View, and in very bad shape. There had once been a window across from the door. It was long gone, and the opening was boarded up. There were burials on either side of me. Three in the wall to my left, another three on my right. Directly in front of me was a wooden platform about six inches from the ground.
Could someone have stashed the coin box under it?
I shuffled closer, leaned over, and pressed my palms against the platform.
That was when I heard the crack.
The platform gave way, and I fell headfirst into pitch darkness.
When I finally opened my eyes, the only thing I saw was a whole lot of darkness pocked with what little sunshine made its way through the tumble-down roof and the jagged pieces of broken platform. I was in a hole, and from extending my arms and feeling around, I could tell it was maybe eight feet deep and four wide.
As if that wasn’t creepy enough, it was damp, slimy, and nasty. Fortunately, I didn’t feel anything like a coffin under my feet or hear the crunching of bones. But worms don’t make noise, do they? And something told me there were plenty of worms down here.
Still shaky from my tumble, I pulled myself to my feet, a move that would have been easier if not for the whole damp-slimy-nasty thing.
I slipped, slid, and went down on my knees.
This time when I got up, I took it nice and easy. While I was at it, I brushed off my jeans and my shirt. Just so one of those worms didn’t get the wrong idea and decide to hitch a ride.
Standing, I could almost reach the lip of the hole. Almost. I jumped and tried to catch hold of it, but though I’m tall, I wasn’t tall enough. The dirt I grabbed onto crumbled in my hands, and a piece of wood from the platform scraped my arm.
Were there blood-sucking worms?
With no options, I made another effort to jump and pull myself out of the hole.
This time, I ended up on my butt.
Panic closed in, as real as the dirt walls that surrounded me. Hoping to steady the sudden, frantic beating of my heart, I sucked in a gulp of air, but it was moist and smelled like decay. I gagged and sputtered and did my best to talk myself down from the edge of a full-blown case of the screaming meemies.
“You could just wait for Crazy Jake to come looking for his lunch,” I reminded myself, my words calm and reassuring, though my voice bubbled on the edge of paralyzing fear. “Or you could just relax and wait for Delmar to decide it’s time for a hit on a joint and come to get one out of his backpack. They’ll hear you down here. And they’ll help you. They’re your teammates. They wouldn’t leave you.”
Or would they?
“Help!” My panic got the best of me, and I screamed as loud as I could. “I’m here. In the mausoleum. Help!”
There was no answer to my plea, and I waited for what felt like a lifetime but was probably closer to a couple seconds before I tried again.
“Help! Somebody, help me!”
Was that a voice I heard in response?
“Help! Is somebody out there?”
“Pepper?” I recognized Absalom’s booming voice. It was close, but muffled, like he was outside the mausoleum. “Where you at, girl?”
“I’m in the mausoleum. There’s a hole in the floor. I fell in and I can’t get out.”
“In there? In that mausoleum?”
Honestly, if I wasn’t so incredibly relieved that someone knew where I was, I would have taken the time to get pissed. I controlled the impatience in my voice, but only with effort, and only because I had a sneaky suspicion that if I gave him any excuse at all, Absalom would pretend the whole thing never happened.
“Get in here,” I told him. “I can’t get out.” As if to prove it, I made another jump for the rim and missed. “I can’t get out by myself. If you could just give me a hand up…”
“In there?” Absalom’s voice sounded closer now, like he was right outside the door. “You want me to come inside?”
“Of course I want you to come inside. What the-”
And then it hit me. Absalom’s reluctance. Absalom’s voodoo doll. Absalom’s chilly personality.
I’d assumed it was all because he was a hardened criminal.
I never even bothered to think that he might be scared to death to be in a cemetery.
“Absalom?” I called out, reminding him I was still in trouble so he wouldn’t hightail it out of there. “It’s just a mausoleum. Just a room. Like a small chapel.”
“Dead people buried in there.”
“Yeah, there are.” There was no use denying it. He was bound to see the names carved into the walls. “But they’ve been here a long, long time, and there’s never been a problem. I mean, no ghosts or anything.” I crossed my fingers as I said this, just in case one of those pesky spirits who’d greeted me my first day at Monroe Street actually was buried there. “There’s definitely no ghosts down here where I am.” I could say this with some authority. “There are worms, though. And spiders!” I felt one skitter up my arm and squealed. “If you could help me out, I’d really appreciate it.”
For what seemed like forever, there was no reply. Then I saw him peek over the edge of the hole. “You scared of spiders?” Absalom asked.
“Terrified.” I didn’t have to pretend. I stretched my arms. “If you could just-”
I never had time to finish. Before I could, Absalom latched onto my hands and pulled. One second I was sailing through the air, seemingly as light as a feather thanks to Absalom’s muscles. The next, I was standing on solid ground.
“Thank you.” I held a hand to my heart, fighting to keep it from bursting through my ribs, and I was all set to give him a hug to show him how grateful I was.
Only by that time, Absalom was already out the door.
I followed him outside, grateful for a lungful of non-moldy air. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”
Rather than answer, he looked around slowly and carefully, as if he expected something dead to pop out from behind the nearest headstone.
Of course, I knew dead things could pop out from behind headstones. But this did not seem like the right time to mention that.
Instead, I brushed off my jeans and my shirt again, which didn’t do much good, seeing as I was coated with icky mud. My knees were trembling, my arm was bleeding, my hair hung in my eyes. I plunked down in the dry, prickly grass.
Doesn’t it figure, that was precisely the moment that Greer showed up. Of course Bianca was with her.
The supermodel took one look at me, shook her head sadly, and left. Greer, though, quivered with anticipation. “Thought I heard a commotion,” she said. “Not as good as that Sammi beating up on her boyfriend. That was priceless!” She gave me a once-over, and I don’t think it was my imagination. She really did smile when she saw that I looked awful.
“Looks like you’ve had an accident of some kind.” Greer called her cameraman over. “Get this,” she ordered him. “Let’s have Ms. Martin here tell us what happened.”
This was not my idea of a good time, but trooper that I am, I pulled myself to my feet.
“We were just checking out the mausoleum,” I said.
“You? Both of you?” Greer turned to Absalom. “I don’t know. I can’t say for sure, but I thought I heard two people yelling back and forth. You know, like one of you was in that mausoleum and the other one was outside. What do you think…?” Like she was teasing, Greer elbowed Absalom in the ribs. “Think there are ghosts hanging around that place?”
He gulped, and that’s all she needed. She was all set to pounce when I stepped between her and Absalom. “We were checking to see what kind of work needed to be done in the mausoleum,” I told her in my best team-captain voice. “Absalom told me to be careful. I should have listened. I went right through an old, boarded up part of the floor. If he wasn’t here to pull me out… well, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“You’re sure?” Greer peered at me before she turned to Absalom. “That’s the way it happened? I thought for sure I heard you sounding like you didn’t want to go into that-”
“For sure,” I interrupted. “That’s the way it happened.”
Her shoulders slumped inside her navy suit jacket, but in her own way, I guess Greer was as much of a trooper as I am. She latched onto her cameraman’s sleeve and led him toward the open door of the mausoleum. “Let’s get in there, Charlie, get some mood shots. You know, dark hole and all.” She looked my way. “We could re-create the scene.”
“Not on your life!” I didn’t wait for her to try and wheedle me into agreeing. I was wheedle-proof, and besides, I knew what was going to happen next. Greer was going to try and talk Absalom into showing her how he’d saved my life. And she was going to read right through his big tough-guy facade. Just like I had.
Rather than risk it, I walked away.
Absalom came along. “You didn’t tell her,” he said.
There didn’t seem to be any use in pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s not her business,” was my only reply.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re not so bad after all.”
Reluctant to break the bond we’d forged, I scrambled for something to say and thought of it when we neared Jefferson Lamar’s grave and I saw the voodoo altar nearby. “Do you suppose that voodoo doll of yours had anything to do with you hearing me and coming to save me?” I asked him.
“I don’t doubt it for a minute. Protection. That’s what she’s for.”
“Then I’m guessing I owe her something. You got any rum?”
Lenny Fitzpatrick, the current warden of Central State, didn’t know me from Adam, and he wouldn’t have given me the time of day if he wasn’t stuck on a treadmill. I knew this because when I finally found him in the dizzying maze of buildings that make up the massive Cleveland Clinic, he looked me over with as much suspicion as if I was one of the inmates in his prison and he’d just found a hole in my cell floor with an escape-plan map tucked inside.
To my credit, I didn’t let that stop me. But I didn’t appreciate it, either, especially since when I left the cemetery at lunchtime, I’d stopped home to shower and change. I was neat, clean, presentable, and looking as good as ever. I wasn’t about to be intimidated. Not by a silver-haired, sixty-something guy wearing gray fleece shorts and a white T-shirt that said I MIGHT BE OVER THE HILL, BUT I GOT HERE ON MY HARLEY.
I introduced myself and told him the same story I’d told Helen Lamar, the one about doing research for the TV show competition and how if I could find out more about Jefferson Lamar, it would get my team big points.
“That was a long time ago.” Fitzpatrick wasn’t moving very fast and it was no wonder. His left leg was crisscrossed with glossy, bright red scars. He took a dozen more slow, careful steps. “There’s nothing new to learn about Jeff Lamar, anyway. Anything you need to know about him, you can find in the old newspaper articles. There were plenty of them. Jeff’s case, it created quite a media sensation.”
By now, telling fibs didn’t phase me, so I didn’t miss a beat. “I have read the old newspaper articles. They gave me all the basic background I need, but there’s nothing like firsthand information from a person who was really there.”
His jaw went rigid. “I was there at the prison,” he said. “Not there at the murder.”
“Of course not. That wasn’t what I meant at all.” I sidled a bit closer to the treadmill, and maybe a whiff of the Marc Jacobs Pear Splash I’d sprinkled on before I left my apartment was a welcome change from the combined aromas of sweat and hospital disinfectant. Some of the starch went out of Fitzpatrick’s shoulders.
“There never was a chance that Jeff didn’t commit that murder,” he said.
Since I hadn’t mentioned the bogus note in the cemetery file that talked about Lamar being framed, this struck me as interesting.
“That seems like a funny thing to say about a friend,” I pointed out.
“Who said we were friends?” There was an open water bottle on a holder at the front of the treadmill, and keeping one hand firmly on the railing at the side of the machine, Fitzpatrick reached for the bottle and took a swig. He didn’t look at me again until he’d put the water bottle back. “We worked together, me and Jeff. It’s not like we were joined at the hip or anything.”
“And you think it’s possible for someone to commit a murder when he’s a firm believer in the justice system?”
“You’ve learned that much about him, huh?” A smile twisted Fitzpatrick’s expression. “That was Jeff, all right. Always preaching about what we could do to help our inmates. Bah!” I had the feeling if Fitzpatrick could have gotten away with spitting on the floor, he would have. “He never would listen. Not when I told him that no matter what he did, criminals were criminals and they were never going to change. He saw the same figures on recidivism that I did. He knew that as soon as the prisoners were released and walked out our front gates, they were going to pick up right where they left off and end up back behind bars. But Jeff…” Fitzpatrick shook his head in disgust. “Maybe that should have told me something, huh? Maybe I should have seen that he had criminal tendencies.”
“Did he? Have criminal tendencies?”
“He killed that girl, didn’t he?”
“What was she like?”
“Vera Blaine?” He probably hadn’t given Vera so much as a thought in more than twenty years. That would explain why he had to concentrate for a while before he said, “She was young. And she didn’t strike me as being very smart. I wouldn’t have hired her. But then…”
“I’ve heard the stories about Lamar and Vera having an affair,” I told him when it seemed like he was reluctant to continue. “You don’t have to worry that you’re helping to keep Lamar’s secret.”
His laughter sounded like sandpaper on stone. “Is that what you think I’m doing? Keeping secrets in honor of Jeff’s memory? I’m not in the secrets business, honey. Don’t have the time, and even if I did, I couldn’t care less. What Jeff did with that girl, that was his business. It became my business when he killed her.”
“So you thought he was guilty? You testified against him?”
He slanted me a look. “That’s a leap of logic if I ever heard one. And no, I didn’t testify against Jeff. I testified. I told the truth. That’s all. Sat there in court and told the truth.”
“And the truth was…”
He took another drink of water and used the time it took to do it to arrange his thoughts. “Jeff Lamar was a tough man,” he said. “Not as tough as he should have been with the prisoners. He believed in educating them. Like that ever did one of those scumbags one bit of good! Jeff was tough with us, with the people he worked with.”
“Then do you think one of them might have-” I’d said too much too soon, but once the words were past my lips, I couldn’t take them back. With no other option, I fell back on the truth. “I talked to Helen Lamar. She believes her husband was innocent, that he was framed by someone who had a grudge against him.”
“Helen always was naive. That’s the only thing that would explain her still believing that crock. With the evidence they had against him, nobody else could have possibly believed Jeff didn’t do it. Well…” He paused for a moment, his head cocked. “Maybe Darcy Coleman. But honestly-”
“Darcy Coleman?” I made a mental note of the name. “She was-”
“Jeff’s secretary. Before Vera Blaine. Darcy’s husband was in one of the armed services, can’t remember which one. He was stationed overseas. That’s when Darcy worked at the prison. When he came back and got transferred to some base in California, she quit and went with him. Jeff needed a secretary. He hired Vera.”
“And this Darcy, do you know what happened to her?”
He looked at me as if I’d just asked him to recite the alphabet backward, but fortunately, there was still twenty minutes to go on the countdown timer on the treadmill, and Fitzpatrick was bored. Talking to me apparently beat sweating all by his lonesome. “I get a Christmas card from Darcy every year. Her husband died a few years ago. Some sort of accident. She moved back to Ohio to be with family. She got her degree out in California. Last I heard from her, she was teaching down at Kent State University.”
I told myself not to forget this. Darcy Coleman sounded like someone I needed to talk to, but before I asked her the all-important question, I wanted to run it by Fitzpatrick and get his take. “Darcy believed Lamar was innocent. Why?”
“Why? Because she was devoted to him. It’s that simple. Not that I thought there was ever anything between them-”
“But you did think there was something between Vera Blaine and Lamar?”
Again, he had to think about it before he shook his head. “Jeff had better taste than that, and I don’t mean that in some sort of sexist way. But Helen, she was a pretty woman. She was soft-spoken and educated. She worked as a teacher. Vera was one of those flashy girls. You know, all hair and attitude.” He realized what he’d said and flinched, but I didn’t give him time to apologize. For one thing, I was way more than just hair and attitude, and if he knew me better, he’d know that. For another, I didn’t have the patience to put up with that kind of crap.
“So you don’t think they were having an affair?”
“I didn’t say that. I said Jeff and Helen seemed to be happy. And I was going to say that I don’t think Jeff was the type.”
“Which type is that?”
“You know, loose morals. Jeff was a big believer in doing the right things. He believed in the law.”
“And the law let him down.”
This time, Fitzpatrick’s smile was touched with pity. “You just don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “The law didn’t let Jeff down, he let it down. He betrayed everything he said he stood for. He killed that girl, as sure as I’m standing here. How else can you explain why his gun was used?”
“Someone stole it?”
“That’s what Jeff said. But it’s like all the other evidence against him. Too glaring to ignore. He was in Cleveland that night, you know.”
This was an important piece of information neither of the Lamars had bothered to mention. “Doing what?”
“Obviously killing Vera.”
I made a face. “Not what I meant. What did Lamar say he was doing in Cleveland that night?”
“The story Jeff told was that his father called in a panic, and he raced to Cleveland to check things out. The old man had Alzheimer’s, you see. Whatever it was that had the old man all upset, there was nothing wrong when Jeff got there. According to him, he stopped by his parents’ house for a bit, then headed back home.”
“And his parents confirmed the story?”
Yeah, I was pushing a little. That might have been why Fitzpatrick gave me a long, careful look. “Because of his condition, the elder Mr. Lamar wasn’t sure if Jeff had been there or not. As for Jeff’s mom, she’d had a stroke a year or so before. She was weak and spent a lot of time in bed. At the time Jeff says he was there, she was sound asleep. So you see, nobody can say if that part of Jeff’s story was true or not.”
Somebody could, and I was going to ask him about it the next time he popped into my life.
“You’re wasting your time if you think all these questions are going to get you anywhere.” Fitzpatrick’s comment brought me out of my thoughts. “The evidence against Jeff was too solid. He was guilty, and if Helen believes otherwise, too bad for her. She’s living a fairy tale. So are you if you listen to her. There wasn’t anyone who would have framed Jeff. Not anyone with anything much to gain from it.”
“You got his job.”
The look Fitzpatrick tossed me was so fierce, I took a step back. He slammed one finger into the button that stopped the treadmill so that he could glare at me more effectively. “Are you implying-”
“Nothing. I’m implying nothing. What I’m doing is looking for the truth.”
“It was more than twenty years ago. What difference does it make?” He poked the button one more time. The treadmill started up again, and Fitzpatrick started with it, walking each cautious step while he kept an eagle eye on me. “Why would anyone care anymore?”
That same afternoon before we wrapped up work for the day, Greer made a long, impassioned (and needless to say, boring) speech about long shadows, sunsets, and creating a moody atmosphere. Consequently, she’d scheduled filming to start later the next day. I would have rejoiced and planned on sleeping in late if not for the fact that I realized that the topsy-turvy schedule meant more work for me. Because of the terms of their probations, my team still had to report to the cemetery at the regular time, and Sammi, in particular, had a curfew. There were papers in the file that I was required to sign saying that if she stayed past a certain time, I was responsible for getting her home.
Which didn’t mean I couldn’t fudge things. Just a little.
Instead of our usual starting hour, I told my team to be at Monroe Street at ten, and with time on my hands and in need of a computer, I stopped at Garden View first thing in the morning. It was a good thing I did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found the vase of flowers on my desk.
It wasn’t a showy bouquet, and yellows and creams really aren’t my colors, but the summery daisies, a couple white roses, and the poof of baby’s breath was charming in its own grocery-store-bought flowers kind of way. You were the best thing about that TV show, the card said. I hated even thinking that Quinn had watched the stupid show. I liked the idea that he was nice enough to send flowers because of it, though. I called to tell him both.
“You watched.” I didn’t need to identify myself, so it was the first thing I said after he’d answered with a brusque, “Harrison, Homicide.”
“I watched…?” I heard the click of computer keys while he did whatever it was he was doing when his phone rang. “The TV show? Yeah, sure I watched. I told you I was going to. I wasn’t home. I had to TiVo it. You were-”
“The best thing about the show.” I grinned into my phone. “That’s sweet, really.” And it really was, because of all the things Quinn is, sweet isn’t one of them.
“You were the best thing about the show.” He must have finished with his computer because I heard his chair squeak when he leaned back in it. “The whole thing was pretty hokey.”
“But I still rate flowers.”
It was one of those tactful statements. Noncommital in a way only Quinn can be. I guess that’s why I thought of the incident the spring before when I made the mistake of thinking a huge bouquet of flowers that had been delivered to the office was from him when they were really from an FBI agent I’d met when I was in Chicago. History couldn’t be repeating itself.
I grabbed the hand-written card again. There was no indication who’d sent the flowers or where they’d come from.
“You didn’t send flowers.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a secret admirer.” Quinn is the only guy I know who can say this sort of thing and not sound the least little bit jealous.
It would have been kind of nice if he did.
And I was getting way off track. Still holding the gift card, I flipped it over, but there was nothing written on the other side. I tossed the card on my desk.
“Your secret admirer taking you to dinner tonight?”
I was tempted to tell him that as a matter of fact, I did have a date that night, because this bouquet of flowers was even more spectacular than the bouquet Agent Baskins had sent, and I was so curious to find out who this secret admirer of mine was, I couldn’t resist.
But that seemed a little petty, even to me.
“I can’t. Not tonight,” I told him, opting for the truth. “We’re filming tonight. And today…” I sat down at my desk and flicked on my computer. “I need to go look at shrubs.” I didn’t appreciate the chuckle I heard on the other end of the phone, so I was instantly defensive. “What?”
“Just can’t imagine you buying shrubs. Ever. Can’t even imagine you’d know what to look for if you went to look for shrubs. But you know, there’s a cop over in Robbery who’s got this cousin who owns a nursery in Rocky River. I hear he’s got good prices, and he might be able to help you out.”
“Can’t. I’m going to Kent to look at shrubs.” I’d already brought up the MapQuest program, and I checked out the map on my computer screen that showed me the way to the town about forty miles away. “There has to be a nursery in Kent, right?”
“You’re going to Kent to look at shrubs and you don’t know if there’s a nursery in Kent?”
“Yeah, something like that.” I looked at the map again. According to the turn-by-turn directions that accompanied it, it would take me exactly forty-eight minutes to get to Kent State University-and Darcy Coleman. That meant I was right on the money when I told my teammates we’d meet at the cemetery at ten, because they were coming with me.
“We’ll do dinner another time,” I told Quinn.
“Sure.” He wasn’t happy about it.
“You’re not the only one with a busy schedule,” I reminded him.
“Point taken,” he said, and though on the surface it was conciliatory enough, he somehow made it sound like an ultimatum. “When you’re not busy with your secret admirer-”
“I’ll call. I promise.”
“Are you going to be chasing murderers this week?”
“That’s the thing with murderers. They never work around my schedule.”
It looked like we had a lot more in common than Quinn could ever imagine.
The Garden of Eden Nursery was tucked between a taco joint and a bar in the area of Kent the locals charitably call downtown, when what they mean is the strip of businesses (largely restaurants, bars, T-shirt shops, and tattoo parlors) where the college kids party when they’re supposed to be studying. The nursery was run by an elderly man named Walter who looked a little uncertain when I walked in with my team in tow but brightened right up when he heard the word shrubs. Shrubs, it turned out, were Walter’s be-all and end-all. Within the first couple minutes of our arrival, I knew more about broad-leaved plants, conifers, and subshrubs than I’d ever hoped to know.
I left my team to get all the details as well as some prices, and promised that I’d be back ASAP. Except for Crazy Jake, who demonstrated an instant attachment to Walter and showed it by snapping dozens of pictures of the old guy, none of my other teammates were happy with what sounded a little too much like homework. They reminded me we weren’t anywhere near the planting stage. I told them I didn’t care. With them busy with a project that would pass as work-related if anyone questioned us, I was free to search for Darcy Coleman.
According to the university’s website, she was a professor of philosophy who taught classes in alternative religions. Whatever that was.
When I finally located the classroom where Darcy was supposed to be teaching, I found a note taped to the door. It said the day’s class had been relocated to an outdoor venue behind the university’s sports complex.
I schlepped there, parked the van I’d borrowed from Garden View to accommodate my team members, and followed a little trail of signposts-purple balloons hanging from paint sticks along with handwritten notes that said Prof. Coleman’s Class, This Way.
Good thing I wasn’t a student. By the time I got to a clearing surrounded by tall oaks and hemmed in on all sides by lilacs as overgrown as the ones in Monroe Street, most of the class was already heading back the other way. There were still a couple stragglers-or brown nosers-around, and I watched as they chatted with a middle-aged woman who was gathering an armful of books.
There was nothing all that unusual about Darcy Coleman. She was average height, with an abundance of dark, thick hair streaked with gray. It hung around her shoulders. The style wasn’t particularly flattering to a thin face scored with wrinkles. Had we passed in a more conventional setting, I probably wouldn’t have noticed Darcy at all.
Well, except for the fact that she was wearing a long velvet robe. Purple. It brushed her bare feet.
“Professor Coleman?” I moved in as soon as those last remaining students were gone. “I wonder if I could talk to you.”
She glanced at a watch that graced her arm along with a dozen or more bangle bracelets. “I’ve got another group coming in just a couple minutes. Do I know you? Are you one of my students? If so, I’m guessing you’re in a pack of trouble, because I haven’t seen you in any of my classes, and part of what I grade on is attendance.”
“I’m not a student.” I was glad, too, especially when the professor set aside her books, reached into a large duffle bag, and brought out a dozen or more tall purple candles. She handed them to me.
“Talk,” she said, “while you help me get ready.”
I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. While Darcy walked a wide circle around the center of the clearing, I followed along. And when she stopped and signaled, I handed her a candle. At each spot, she used a stick to poke a hole in the ground, placed a candle, and moved on.
I waited until we’d set up two candles before I broached the subject. “I’m here about Jefferson Lamar,” I said.
This wasn’t something she expected. Her eyebrows arched, she looked over her shoulder at me. “You know he’s dead.”
“Yes, of course. But his widow-”
“Helen thinks he was innocent.”
Darcy stopped in her tracks, and believe me, I’m not overly sensitive or anything, but when she looked me up and down, I couldn’t help but feel a little defensive. “And she sent you to try and find out more?”
I didn’t like her tone. Then again, I wasn’t crazy about her fashion choices, either, so I guessed there wasn’t much the professor and I had in common. I reminded myself to hold on to my temper. “I’m doing some research about Lamar. I thought if I talked to someone who knew him well…”
“All these years, and Helen still won’t let it go. She wants you to prove Jeff was innocent, right?”
“Can you help me do that?”
She shook herself out of the initial shock that had rooted her to the spot and continued on. We didn’t stop again until we were on the far side of the circle. She signaled, I handed, she placed.
“I never thought Warden Lamar was guilty,” she said.
She shrugged. “I knew he was innocent. That’s all. Or I thought I knew. He wasn’t that kind of man.”
“But there was plenty of evidence against him.”
“The gun, you mean.”
“And his blood at the scene.”
“On Vera’s blouse. Yeah, I remember that.” She moved on to the next spot. “It made him look really bad. I remember how disappointed I was. I didn’t want it to be true.”
“But you think it was.”
“I think the jury had to make a decision based on the facts, and the facts were pretty clear.”
“But what if he wasn’t guilty? What if someone framed him?”
I thought maybe I’d get the kind of reaction I had from Lenny Fitzpatrick, but Darcy was more matter-of-fact than angry. “Of course, I thought of that,” she said. “I was living in California by that time, and I was pregnant and pretty sick. I couldn’t travel back for the trial, but I gave a deposition. I told the court everything I knew, and everything I knew said that Jeff was a good and honor-able man.”
“Did you tell them you thought he’d been framed?”
“There was no proof.”
“But it was possible?”
“If somebody framed him, do you have any idea who it could have been?” Her expression was sour, and I knew if I didn’t justify myself, she’d tell me to get lost. “You must have known more about what went on in that prison than just about anyone else,” I said. “You knew what was in each prisoner’s file, right? Who had disciplinary problems. Who had a beef with the warden.”
She grunted a laugh. “Every prisoner in there had a beef with the warden. Comes with the territory.”
“But maybe some of them were more pissed than others?”
This gave her pause, and we stopped in the shade of the biggest of the oaks. “I was Jeff’s secretary for six years, and I’ll tell you what: in that time, I saw my share of trouble-making prisoners. There were a couple who were worse than the others, though. Yeah.” Thinking, she narrowed her eyes. “There were a couple who were lots of trouble.”
“Would any of them have been capable of framing Lamar?”
This time when she laughed, there was not one bit of humor in it. “You don’t know prisoners, do you? Oh yeah, there were a few who would have loved to see Lamar get jammed up. I told the police that when they called and talked to me about the case. If they followed up on my information or not, I can’t say. I only know that if they did, they must not have found anything, because Jeff was the one who was arrested, and he was the one who was convicted.”
“It’s possible things might look different now. I mean, a lot of time has passed. If you could give me some names…”
I don’t know if she was going to agree or not because at that very moment, five other women entered the clearing. They were all middle-aged and all dressed pretty much as Darcy was, in long robes. I’d held my curiosity in check long enough.
“What in the world-”
Darcy’s smile sparkled. “We’re doing a croning ceremony,” she said, and in answer to my blank look continued. “Debbie over there”-Debbie was apparently the plus-sized woman in the red robe-“is turning fifty, and we’re going to honor the wisdom she’s gained over the years. Would you like to join us?”
“Will it get me the names of the prisoners you think might have framed Jefferson Lamar?”
Darcy didn’t answer. In fact, all she did was smile.
Right before she and all the other women there stripped off their robes.
Every single one of them was stark naked underneath.
Do I even need to say how fast I got out of there? Of course I don’t. Just like I don’t need to mention that not even a bunch of middle-aged naked babes were enough to scare me into giving up-not when Darcy Coleman had already mentioned prisoners who were more trouble than most, ones who might have hated him enough to frame Jefferson Lamar.
Making sure I was nowhere near where I could catch so much as a glimpse of those women in all their crone-like glory, I hung around the sports complex until I saw a couple of them (back in their robes, thank goodness) heading for their cars. Before Darcy was in the parking lot, I was already closing in on her.
“Did we make you uncomfortable?” She unlocked the trunk of her sea green Prius and deposited the candles and her books inside. “That wasn’t our intention, you know. We’re simply celebrating our femininity. You take it for granted when you’re young.” She shot me a sidelong glance. “But someday you’ll realize that there’s more to being a woman than just being sexy and adorable.” She banged the trunk shut. “Wisdom is a good thing.”
“Which is why I want to find out more about those prisoners you said might have had it in for Jefferson Lamar. Once I have their names, I’ll be smarter, right? And wisdom-”
Darcy laughed. “Thank goodness you’re not one of my students. You’d be trouble in class.”
“I always was.” I left out the part about how it wasn’t because I’d ever challenged my professors to see things in a different light. “You said you’d give me names.”
“I never did.” She unlocked her car and opened the driver’s door so it would cool off inside before she climbed in. “But… well… maybe I can help you.”
It was exactly what I was hoping she’d say, and I was ready for her. I already had a notebook in my hands and I clicked open a pen.
“The first one that comes to mind is Mack Raphael, of course,” she said. “But that’s just because I see him on TV all the time.” I guess my next question was evident in my huh expression because she went right on. “You know, Bad Dog Raphael, he owns a used car lot in Cleveland somewhere. He’s in his own commercials. You must have seen them. Seems like every time I turn on the TV, they’re running one.”
Now that she mentioned it, that did sound familiar. “This Bad Dog guy, he used to be a prisoner?”
“One of the worst. I don’t remember details, but I think he was at Central State because of aggravated assault or something like that. Something violent. It wasn’t his first offense, either. It’s funny, really. Every time I see one of those commercials, I find myself thinking about Warden Lamar. He was a big believer in rehabilitation, and if Bad Dog owns his own successful business… well, maybe the warden was right. Maybe prisoners really can turn their lives around. Maybe it’s Warden Lamar’s influence from beyond the grave…” She laughed like she wished it were possible, and for a nanosecond, I thought of telling her it actually was. She didn’t give me a chance.
“Anyway,” Darcy continued, “at the time I had to deal with Mack Raphael, he was one nasty guy with attitude to spare. He came to the office once for a disciplinary hearing and asked me if I wanted to duck into the men’s room for a quickie. Can you believe the nerve?” She shivered at the memory.
“Raphael had gang connections, in and out of the prison, and even though Warden Lamar could never prove anything for certain, he suspected Bad Dog was running drugs from the inside. You know, sending orders out to his gang through visitors, making calls to arrange drug buys, even smuggling the stuff in and distributing it in the prison. Bad Dog was smart, but Warden Lamar was smarter. Once he clamped down on Raphael and started monitoring visits and phone calls, it must have hurt business, because Bad Dog freaked. Warden Lamar didn’t need more proof than that. He knew he’d closed Mack Raphael down.”
“Which must have pissed this Bad Dog guy off.”
“Then you think he was the one who-”
“Oh, he wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. I was thinking about it. You know, while I was picking up the candles and putting everything in order back at the clearing. There were other prisoners who were mad at the world and wanted to take out their anger on the warden. Take Teddy Johnson, for example, though I don’t think it’s possible he could have framed Warden Lamar.”
I wrote down the name right under Mack Raphael’s. “Tell me about him, anyway,” I said, and when Darcy looked at me, I sparkled. “Wisdom. It will help me gain wisdom.”
I had a feeling she was sorry that she ever mentioned it. She sighed. “Teddy had a temper. He was in the warden’s office regularly, and once, he actually went across the desk at Warden Lamar. Needed four guards to haul him off.”
“Then you think Teddy might have-”
She shook her head. “No, like I said, he couldn’t have done it. Teddy ended up getting shanked in the cafeteria line. He died right there on the floor. But that was long before Warden Lamar was accused of killing Vera. Had to be, because I was still at the prison then. So, no. Teddy was already dead by the time Warden Lamar was arrested. He couldn’t have been the one who framed him.” She was so sure, I crossed Teddy off the list.
“I thought of Rodney Beers, too, but…” Again, she shook her head and again, I felt my hopes rise, then fall flat. “No way it could have been Rodney. At least not the way I see it. He was in Central State at the time of the warden’s arrest, and I hear he was one of the guys who cheered the loudest when he heard the news. But one of the guards I kept in touch with told me that Rodney found religion a few years later. As part of his repentance, he confessed to every crime he ever committed, including a couple murders.”
“But he never said a word about framing Jefferson Lamar.”
“You’re quick.” She smiled. “Maybe you’re already on your way to finding wisdom.”
I tapped my pen against the notepad. “So if we eliminate Teddy and this Rodney character, that leaves Bad Dog-”
“And Reno Bob Oates!” Her eyes lit. “I’d forgotten all about him. Good old, Reno! He once held up a bank and said he had a bomb. The cops never did find one, but Bob, he had them convinced. Held everyone in the bank hostage for a couple days. Bob was a colorful guy with a larger-than-life personality and a record as long as my arm. He had a beef with the system. Bob always had a beef with somebody or something. Anyway, the whole bank robbery turned into a media circus, and Bob became something of a celebrity with the prison groupies. A lot of people thought he was charming. I can’t say I agree. Bob had a vicious side. Rumor had it he slit a guy’s throat over a card game out in Nevada. That’s how he got his nickname.”
Thinking back, she tipped her head. “Bob really enjoying being in the spotlight, and believe it or not, a number of reporters from magazines and newspapers came to interview him at Central State. Three cheers for Warden Lamar: he saw that the more publicity Bob got, the more glamorous the whole life-of-crime thing looked to kids. He put a stop to it. No more interviews. No more phone calls from fans. Bob promised he’d get even. I was there when he said it. He swore Warden Lamar would regret what he’d done to him to his dying day. I can’t say if the warden did or not. I do know that I heard just recently that Bob is out of prison, living up in Cleveland somewhere.”
“Then you think Reno Bob could have-”
“I can’t say. Not really.” Darcy got her car keys out of the pocket of her purple robe. “This is all just me thinking out loud. And it all happened so long ago, I might not even be getting the details right. None of it proves a thing.”
“No. Of course not. But at least it gives me a place to start.”
“Start? You’re not going to-” She wasn’t wearing shoes, and Darcy was shorter than me to begin with. She backed up and gave me a long, deliberate look. “You don’t know these people,” she said. “And don’t tell me once you do, you’ll gain wisdom. That’s not the kind of wisdom anyone with a brain is looking for. Yes, like Warden Lamar, I do believe criminals can be rehabilitated. I hope every single one I’ve ever met is living a fulfilling, productive life. But I’m not stupid, and just from talking to you, I don’t think you are, either. If you start poking your nose where it doesn’t belong and asking questions about these guys and their lives and their crimes, it’s likely you’re going to annoy somebody. And these people can be dangerous.”
“Which is exactly why I’m not going anywhere near any of them. I promise.” I smiled when I said this, the better to fool her into believing me and myself into ignoring the shiver of fear that snaked up my spine when she talked about bombs and drug running and guys with prison records that made my dad’s pale by comparison. “I’m just looking for the truth,” I assured her.
“The truth?” Darcy grunted a laugh. “The only truth you’ll ever find is in here,” she said, pressing one hand to her heart. “And once you find that… well, you won’t need to search for wisdom anymore. You’ll have all you’ll ever need.”
Whatever that meant.
Just for the record, Quinn is a mighty good kisser. Not that I’m into comparisons or anything, but I’ve been kissed by a lot of guys in my time, and I know what’s what when it comes to good and not-so-good and mind-blowing /knee-melting/wow.
Quinn rates right up there with the best, and at that very moment, I could pretty much prove it because his arms were around me, his mouth was on mine, and my toes were tingling.
The rest of me was all set to go along for the ride when something over his shoulder caught my eye.
“Bad Dog…” Sounding all rough and tough, the voice thundered through the room. “Good cars!” It finished the slogan on a gentler, happier note.
I shot up in bed. “It’s the Bad Dog used-car commercial!”
Quinn had been snuggled up nice and close, his bare chest against mine, and when I sat up, he was forced to roll to one side. He looked over his shoulder at the TV we’d flicked on when we came into my bedroom so he could catch the score of the Indians game. “You’re watching a used-car commercial? We’ve been in bed for-”
“Shhh!” I put out one hand to keep him from talking and waited for Mack Raphael to appear. He was a good-looking, middle-aged guy with thick, dark hair and a scar over his left eye that made him look interesting and dangerous all at the same time. He wore an expensive suit with a dark T-shirt underneath.
“Need a car? Credit bad? You don’t think Bad Dog Raphael is going to let that stop him, do you? I won’t let anything stand between you and reliable transportation. Come on in to Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation.”
The shot switched to Raphael outside on his lot, waving in perfect unison with a mechanical dog that sat in a car on top of a twenty-foot pole. It was a big, ugly, laughing bulldog with a serious overbite. “We’ll get you the car you need at a price you can afford. After all, I might be a bad dog.” He growled. “But I sure do have good cars.”
The scene switched to the baseball game, and yeah, I should have gone back to doing what I’d been doing before the commercial started. But honest, I couldn’t help myself. I had my very own expert on criminals right there in bed with me, and it was too good of an opportunity to let pass.
I flopped back against my pillow. “Do you suppose people know he’s an ex-con?” I asked.
Right before he dropped onto the pillow next to mine, a muscle twitched at the base of Quinn’s jaw. “Sorry you’re so bored.”
I wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair for him to make that kind of snap judgment. I sat up again, just long enough to fluff my pillow. “You’re the one who wanted to see the score of the game.”
“And I saw it, and the Indians are winning for a change, so as far as I’m concerned, we could really turn the TV-”
“There.” The remote was closest to me so I grabbed it and turned off the TV. “Happy?”
“Apparently happier than you.”
I flipped to my left side so that I could glare at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Good.” I didn’t like his sourpuss expression, so if he was any other guy, I would have told him to get dressed and get out of there. But this was Quinn, and remember what I said about what a good kisser he was? He did a whole lot of things really well, and I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to have him demonstrate. I scooted closer and skimmed a finger over his collar bone. “Now that we’re both happy, can we get back to doing what we were doing?”
He turned on his right side and propped his head on one hand. “Sure, right after you explain what’s so special about Bad Dog Raphael. And while you’re at it, you might want to tell me how you know he’s an ex-con.”
Just in case Quinn was good at reading through lies-and since it was what he did for a living, I would bet on it-I flopped back against my pillow again. “I’m not interested. Not in Bad Dog.”
“Then you must be buying a car.”
“And buying a car is more important than-”
“Of course not!” I gave my pillow a punch to emphasize my point. “I just thought if I was looking for information… about cars… you know… that somebody like Bad Dog might be able to help me, and-”
“No way. You’re not going anywhere near that guy.”
Quinn isn’t the caveman type, so I wasn’t prepared for what sounded too much like an ultimatum. “Why not?” I asked, meeting challenge for challenge. “Bad Dog says he’s got reliable transportation and good cars for good prices. He must know what he’s talking about. He’s got all those commercials.”
“And as you’ve already pointed out, he’s got a record.”
“Which doesn’t automatically make him a bad guy. There are some people who believe that criminals can be rehabilitated, you know. Even ones who’ve been in prison.”
Quinn’s laugh fell right in the middle of the I-can’t-believe-how-stupid-you-are meter. “You’re naive.”
He sat up and shoved a curl of inky hair off his forehead. “So now we’re going to fight about some scumbag of an ex-con? That’s just crazy.”
“For one thing, we’re not fighting. For another, what’s just crazy is you making a big deal out of the fact that I asked a simple question about a guy I saw on TV. I wondered if people knew he was an ex-con, that’s all. I wondered if he might not be a good businessman, anyway, and if he was, I wondered what he could tell me about-”
“A guy like that can’t tell you anything about anything, and if you were as smart as you pretend to be, you wouldn’t even think he could.”
“So now you’re saying I’m not smart.” That was enough to give me all the excuse I needed to slide out of bed. It was a hot, sticky night, but my emerald green satin wrap was nearby, and I slipped it on. “Maybe Mack Raphael is a bad guy. Guess what? I don’t care. Not really. But I don’t have to sit here and listen to you tell me who I can and can’t talk to. And I don’t have to put up with you telling me I’m stupid, either.”
“Raphael is a bad guy. Don’t you get it?” I noticed that Quinn concentrated on that part of our discussion and completely ignored the part about how smart I was-or wasn’t. “We’re certain he’s dealing drugs out of that car dealership of his, but nobody can prove it, and we can’t pin anything on him, and it’s driving everybody on the force nuts because if we could, we might be able to get the shit he sells off the street.”
It was as impassioned as I’d ever seen Quinn (well, as impassioned as I’d ever seen him about his job), and in spite of my anger, I felt a stab of admiration. Did I regret bringing up Raphael’s name? Not a chance! In fact, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to ease back into the subject.
One leg tucked under me, I sat back down on the bed. “I didn’t know that,” I admitted. “He sounds pretty bad. Like the kind of guy who might murder somebody.”
Quinn sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed, reached for his boxers, and tugged them on. “It’s obvious you’ve got other things on your mind. Other than me, I mean. Maybe we’ll just chalk this one up to a night that wasn’t meant to be.”
What was more important to me, the sex or the information?
At that point, I wasn’t sure, I only knew I saw the chance for both slipping away. I rounded the bed so I could stand closer to Quinn. “You’re jumping to conclusions,” I said, then scrambled to make that sound a little less argumentative because, of course, he was jumping to conclusions, and he didn’t look happy when I pointed it out. “I’m just expressing ordinary curiosity, that’s all. I just wondered if a guy who’s as scummy as Bad Dog might be the kind of guy who would kill somebody, and then, you know, then maybe he’d pin the murder on someone else.”
Quinn’s gaze snapped to my dresser where I’d left the thick file that contained the original notes regarding the Jefferson Lamar case. He’d given it to me at dinner that night, and I hadn’t had time to look through it yet. Apparently, though, Quinn had.
“Raphael had nothing to do with what happened to Jefferson Lamar,” he said. “I don’t know why you’d even think that. Raphael’s name isn’t even mentioned in the file.”
“Which doesn’t mean-”
“It means plenty.” When he’d taken his pants off, he’d draped them over a chair, and he put them back on and zipped them, then did up his belt. “Jefferson Lamar was convicted back in 1985. Raphael was no more than a punk kid then.”
“Punk kids have been known to kill people.”
“All too true.” Quinn slipped into his shirt. “But I just happened to be talking to one of my buddies from the Narcotic’s Unit today. He mentioned Raphael. We talked about the guy and what’s going on at that used-car lot of his. I’m familiar with his background, Pepper. If Raphael killed Vera Blaine, he would have had to be a Houdini. He was locked up at Central State at the time. Satisfied now?”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Lamar case or the fact that now that he was dressed, it was obvious our night was going to end early, and not on the note either of us had expected. When Quinn walked out of my bedroom, I followed him. As long as I’d already killed the mood, I might as well go for broke.
“Raphael could have arranged for someone else to kill Vera Blaine for him,” I told Quinn once we were out in the living room. “You know, a hit. Or a contract killing. Or whatever it is they call it on TV. And you did say Central State, right? That’s the prison where Jefferson Lamar was the warden.”
He was just about to grab his shoulder holster and sling it on when he stopped cold. “Are you even listening to yourself?” he asked, and the look he gave me was so steely, I nearly backed down. Nearly. “You can’t get mixed up with a guy like Mack Raphael just because you’re trying to get information for some silly TV contest. If you think you can, you’re crazy.”
“I’m not getting mixed up with him. I’m not getting mixed up with anybody. I’m just looking for information, and if Raphael can give it to me-”
“Even if Mack Raphael could give you every bit of information you’ve ever wanted and if he served it up on a silver platter, I’d still say the same thing. Don’t talk to him. In fact, while I’m trying to talk some sense into you, let me add that you shouldn’t even go near him. Or think about him for that matter.”
“Why, because he’s a good-looking guy?”
Quinn’s jaw tensed. “How about because he’s a hardened criminal?”
“But if he knows something about how Vera Blaine died-”
“If he does or if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Number one, because it’s none of your business. And number two, because you’re never going to find out, anyway.”
“Because you think I’m not smart enough.”
“Because I know people who cross Mack Raphael tend to end up dead.”
“Oh.” Reality check. I chewed on my bottom lip, wondering how I could find out more and not set Quinn off again. He didn’t give me a chance. Instead, he walked to the door and pulled it open.
Before he stepped out into the hallway, he turned to me. “Mind your own business,” he said.
“This is my business. Sort of.”
His hand still on the doorknob, he gave me one last chance to come clean. “Level with me.”
Only I couldn’t, could I?
I was still trying to find the words to explain when Quinn walked away.
My love life was a mess, but when it came to my professional life-and by this, I don’t mean my work in the cemetery-I was in luck. The detective who headed the original murder investigation was a stickler for detail and incredibly organized. The file Quinn gave me before he stomped out of my apartment (OK, he didn’t exactly stomp, but it wasn’t exactly pretty, either) contained not only his original notes about the case, but interviews with witnesses and suspects, crime scene photos, the autopsy report, and what must have been every newspaper article ever written about Jefferson Lamar and Vera Blaine.
I took the file marked BLAINE, VERA-CLOSED to the cemetery with me the next day. Surprise, surprise… I don’t know how he managed, but Absalom had somehow a) intimidated, b) coerced, c) outright threatened, or d) all of the above, everyone on the team to actually work. By the time I got there, they were busy trimming overgrown hedges and pulling a ton of weeds. With that out of the way, and no other pressing responsibilities for the moment, I pretended I had TV show business to take care of and ducked into the mausoleum. Careful to keep far back from the hole in the floor, I sat down on the lawn chair one of my teammates had left there, pulled out the file, and got to work.
“Body of Woman Found in Local Motel”
“Prison Warden Questioned in Slaying of Young Secretary”
“Surprising Arrest in Vera Blaine Case”
“A Business Relationship Turned Tragic?”
“Warden’s Testimony Shaky, Evidence Solid”
The headlines screamed at me from article after article, bolder and more sensational as the trial went on.
“Guilty!” the headline on one of the last articles in the pile shouted. “Love Nest Turned Murder Scene” said another, right above a photo of the Lake View Motel, a not-so-charming-looking place with a half-burned-out neon sign and a blacktop parking lot.
“I didn’t stand a chance.”
For the record, I did not squeal when I realized Jefferson Lamar was standing right in back of me, reading over my shoulder. I did, however, flinch. Like anyone could blame me?
I turned and gave him a glare. “Maybe they wouldn’t have been so quick to convict you if you weren’t so sneaky.”
He didn’t get it.
It wasn’t worth trying to explain.
Instead, I fanned out the newspaper articles. “There’s an awful lot here that sounds damning,” I said.
“Obviously. They convicted me.”
“Maybe they had good reason?” It wasn’t the first time I’d given him the opportunity to tell the whole truth and nothing but. This time, like the last, he stood firm.
“I didn’t do it,” he said, each of his words precise and clipped so I couldn’t help but understand.
“Your testimony was shaky.” Just in case he’d forgotten, I waved the newspaper article with the headline that said the same thing. “You didn’t have much of an alibi.”
“I was in Cleveland, I’ll admit that much. I was visiting my folks. Helen went out that evening. By the time I got home, she was in bed, asleep.”
“You changed your story a couple times when they questioned you about Vera. First you said you’d cut your finger the morning she died. In your office. You said she helped you bandage it. Then when the prosecutor questioned you…” I consulted the article again, just to make sure I had my facts lined up right. “You said it was in the afternoon, after lunch.”
“Morning? Lunchtime? What difference did something as stupid as a cut on my hand make in light of what happened to Vera? I got mixed up. I was nervous.”
“Just like you were nervous when they asked about those motel receipts?” That was in another article. I read it over again. “It says here the police found four receipts from the Lake View Motel in your office. All from dates when you happened to be conveniently out of the office at Central State.”
“And none of them had my name on them.” Lamar gave me the kind of tight-jawed, unblinking glare I imagined he’d aimed at the prosecutor when he asked the same sorts of questions. “If they were mine, why would I be stupid enough to keep them? In my office, no less. Obviously, somebody planted them.”
“But you could never prove that. Just like you couldn’t prove that you didn’t kill Vera.”
“Somebody else did and pinned it on me.”
Which reminded me of the talk I’d had with Darcy Coleman a couple days earlier. “Could it have been Mack Raphael?” I asked.
“You found out about him, huh?” Lamar looked me over and nodded, obviously impressed with my detective skills. It was about damn time. “I wondered how long it would take you to dig up that little piece of information. So, you talked to somebody about the case and that somebody… does that somebody think Bad Dog is the one who framed me?”
“That somebody is your old secretary, Darcy Coleman,” I informed him. “And she didn’t come right out and say it, but yeah, I think she’d like nothing better than to find out that Bad Dog is the one who engineered the whole thing. Bad Dog or somebody else. Anybody else, in fact. When you were convicted, she felt betrayed.”
His expression softened. “She was a good kid. Smart, too. I mean, obviously, you saw that. She must be smart if she realized I didn’t do it.”
Was that a dig because I wasn’t willing to take him at his word? Just in case, I figured I’d better point out that he wasn’t the only one with issues about how the case was being handled. “You could have saved me a lot of time if you’d just told me about Bad Dog yourself.” I didn’t bother to add that he also would have saved me the psychological damage of seeing Darcy and her cronies (get it?) in their birthday suits. “You never mentioned Reno Bob, either.”
“You needed independent verification. If I gave you the names of the most obvious suspects, there was no reason for you to listen. I’m biased, after all. This way, you can see that there are others who believe in my innocence. Did Darcy tell you about Rodney Beers, too?”
Since it happened after Lamar was already dead, I filled him in on Rodney’s conversion and subsequent confession. “You want to help me out here and tell me if there’s anybody else we’re missing?”
“Hundreds of people, I suppose. Aren’t the suspect interviews in the file?”
They were, and together, Lamar and I read them over. Quinn was right, Mack Raphael had never even been mentioned. Neither had Reno Bob Oates.
“They were both incarcerated at the time,” Lamar said. “Of course the police didn’t suspect them.”
“And you did?” I shook my head in wonder. “Call me a little crazy, but it’s hard to figure out how a guy in prison could kill anybody.”
“You’ve never been in a prison.” He turned that eagle-eye stare on me one more time before we got back to reading.
The rest of the interview file wasn’t all that helpful. The cops had talked to a few other people in connection with the case. For one reason or another, they were all eliminated as suspects.
With a sigh of frustration, I shoved the interview pages back in the file and pulled out the crime scene photos.
Sure, I’m a private investigator. And sure, I’ve solved a bunch of murders in the time since I’d been bonked on the head and received what my ghostly clients like to call my Gift. But here’s the thing: when I meet my clients, they’re already dead, and because they’re ghosts, they look just like they looked when they were alive. They’re the age they were when they died, and they’re wearing the kinds of clothes they wore when they were alive. Even my second client, Didi Bowman, who’d been tossed off a bridge, looked like she had before her body met the concrete some two hundred feet below.
That was all good news because I tend to get queasy at the sight of blood and gore. I’m not a big fan of violence, either. I mean, I’d been shot, right? So I had every right to be skittish when it came to that sort of thing. I’d also been almost pitched off a bridge, too, and I’d been dumped in the lake, and-
Well, let’s just leave it at that, a reminder that a private detective’s life is not an easy one.
Let’s also say that I’m not used to this sort of up-close-and-personal look at the aftermath of a crime.
There were maybe a dozen or so crime scene photos, eight-by-tens, all black and white. For a couple minutes, I shuffled through them, briefly glancing at the one on the top of the pile before I put it on the bottom and moved on to the next. At that point, I wasn’t looking at details. In fact, I was hardly looking at all. I was just trying to get an overall impression, a sense of the time and the place. While I was at it, I hoped maybe I’d get desensitized to the horror of it all, too.
The pictures, see, made my blood run cold.
I got back to the first photo and started through again, forcing myself to slow down and take a longer look. The first picture was an overall shot of the motel, similar to the photo I’d seen in the newspaper article. The next one was a close-up of the door to room 12. The next picture took my breath away. Not because it showed Vera’s body. In fact, I had to search to even find it, crumpled where it was on the floor between the dresser and the bed.
No, that wasn’t what caught my attention.
Neither was the fact that the Lake View looked like a generic motel: cheap furniture, standard bed, dresser, nightstand, chair, lamps.
What caught my attention and made my stomach flip was the obvious ferocity of what had happened in that room.
One of the lamps was smashed to smithereens, shards of it sparkling from the threadbare carpet and its shade crushed and lying on the bed. The dresser was bumped away from its normal spot against the wall, at least three feet from where it should have been. I could tell because the fine folks at the Lake View hadn’t moved the furniture the last time the room was painted. The wall behind where the dresser normally stood was a couple shades darker than the rest of the wall around it. The mirror that should have hung over the dresser was shattered in a million spiderweb pieces. The sheets on the bed were thrown back and twisted, and I’d bet any money that if I was looking at a color photo, that splatter of polka dots across them would have been bloodred.
“Wow.” I blinked away the tears that sprang to my eyes and tried not to think about the horror of what must have happened in that room. “The place is a wreck. There must have been an awful lot of noise. You’d think someone would have called the cops.”
“They probably did after they heard the shots,” Lamar said. “Before that… that’s the kind of place where everyone minds their own business. You know, a sleazy sort of place with pink flamingoes on the bathroom wallpaper.” He leaned closer for a better look, and I leaned back to be certain to stay out of the freeze zone. “I saw the pictures only briefly when the police interrogated me and then again at the trial. Poor kid.” His finger hovered over the image of Vera. “It must have been terrible for her.”
I needed a break from the photographs, so I consulted the autopsy report. “It says here she was beaten before she was shot. I guess that would explain the condition of the room.” The list of contusions, abrasions, and broken bones was staggering (not to mention stomach churning), so I let my gaze drift to the last line of the report. “She was finally killed with a.38 Smith & Wesson Special.”
“My gun.” There was no use denying it, so Lamar didn’t even try.
“One shot nicked her arm. They call that a defensive wound,” I said. “Another one punctured her lung. The third one was at close range. Right to her heart.”
I set the autopsy report aside and moved to the next photograph.
When she died, Vera Blaine was wearing a dark skirt, pantyhose, and loafers. Her white Oxford-cloth shirt was open at the throat and stained with dark patches. The shirt was untucked, and there was still a sweater tied stylishly (for the times, anyway) around her shoulders. Her clothing was speckled with blood.
Most of the newspaper articles I’d read through earlier had featured the same photo of Vera. The eighties was not a kind decade, fashionwise. In what was probably her high school graduation picture, Vera looked like a smiling cocker spaniel who’d used too much eye shadow and whose hair was so gelled, moussed, and blown dry, it puffed out around her like a cloud.
In the close-up photo of her battered body, Vera looked pale and her hair was a tangled mess. Her dark eyes were wide open, her lower lip was swollen, and there was a smear of blood across her left cheek. She had about a dozen of those brightly colored plastic jelly bracelets on her left arm.
“I had a bunch of those when I was a kid,” I said, looking at the bracelets. The memory made me feel, in spite of the years, as if there were a connection between me and Vera. I guess that’s why my eyes misted. I knew I needed a distraction and needed one fast. Now that Lamar had discovered that I was a competent PI, I didn’t need him to think I was a crybaby girl. I found what I was looking for when I caught a glimpse of a page marked DECEASED’S PERSONAL EFFECTS.
Clearing my throat, I read it over. “Purse with wallet containing sixteen dollars and forty-seven cents. Makeup, lipstick, one package Trojan condoms. Hmmmm.” I thought this over, then got back to reading. “Black duffel bag containing fishnet stockings, a lace T-shirt, denim jacket with sewn on beads and lace, a black miniskirt.” The condoms made sense to me, the rest of it? I thought it over for a while before the truth dawned, and I whistled below my breath. “That’s weird, isn’t it? According to the newspaper reports, Vera didn’t check into the motel until around seven that evening. Her body was found a little after two in the morning. You were quoted…” I dug through the pile of newspaper clippings until I found the one I was looking for. “Here,” I held it up for him to see. “You were quoted as saying that Vera hadn’t requested to take the next day as a vacation or personal day. Which tells me she wasn’t planning on staying at the Lake View overnight.”
While Lamar processed all this, I kept right on thinking out loud. “Which means she shouldn’t have needed a change of clothes. Unless…” I thought some more. About the condoms, and the fishnets stockings, and the rest of that outfit, one that would have turned even the sweetest-faced cocker spaniel into a hot-to-trot French poodle. “Vera was obviously meeting somebody. I mean, why hang out at a motel otherwise? But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe she had a little something going on the side. Maybe she was turning tricks or something.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Lamar’s rumble would have shaken the windows if the old mausoleum had any. “She wasn’t that kind of girl.”
“Her wardrobe says otherwise.” I looked through the list again, then looked at Vera’s picture. “She came and went dressed for the office. In a shirt she wore that day that still had a little bit of your blood on it from when you cut yourself. That explains why she never changed out of the bloodstained shirt before she left Central State. She didn’t have to. By the time her date”-I gave this word the emphasis it deserved-“arrived, she knew she’d have her party clothes on, so she didn’t care about the stain. And getting ready to leave, she changed her clothes so that when she got back home, she looked just like she looked when she left for the office that day.”
I narrowed my eyes, imagining Vera transformed into a vampy punk. “At the very least, Little Miss Buttoned-down here must have been planning a party. And my guess was that it was with some sicko who liked his girls even younger than twenty-two. That would explain all those jelly bracelets.”
Not to Lamar, of course.
“Jelly bracelets were a teenaged thing and a kid thing. I told you, I had some back then, and I was maybe five. I don’t think those bracelets were a wardrobe staple for a young career woman, at least not one who normally dressed like she just stepped out of the Official Preppy Handbook.”
Lamar looked uncomfortable with the whole notion, and I guess I couldn’t blame him. It must have been freaky to have to face the fact that his little secretary might have led a double life. His eyebrows plummeted and he twitched his shoulders. “It has to be some sort of mistake. She never looked like that at the office.”
“Well, I doubt if the killer brought that stuff with him.” Done with the list of Vera’s personal items, I tucked it away and drummed my fingers against the aluminum arm of the lawn chair. I knew I didn’t have to ask Lamar. After all, I’d just read the newspaper articles. But I asked anyway, just to gauge his reaction. “That’s what they said, right? In the newspapers and in court, I mean. The cops’ theory was that you met Vera at the Lake View for a little extracurricular hanky-panky, things got out of hand, and bang!” I slapped my hand against the arm of the chair hard enough to make Lamar jump.
If he wasn’t already dead, he would have been as white as a ghost.
He ran his tongue over his lips. “That’s exactly what they said. But they never had any proof. They couldn’t have had any proof.”
“Because there was no proof to have.”
“Exactly.” He lifted his chin and pulled back his shoulders. “I told you before-”
“I know.” I waved away any chance that he might give me the I-am-innocent speech again. “I’m just trying to think like they were thinking, and they were thinking what I’m thinking. At least if they were thinking that there was more to Vera than met the eye. You never got the vibe from her at the office, huh? She never came on to you?”
His shoulders shot back just a little more. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not being ridiculous. I’m being objective. Or at least I’m trying to be objective. So, being objective…” I stood and did a turn around the mausoleum, carefully avoiding that gaping hole in the floor. “Here’s what I think. I think this might have played out in a couple different ways. Number one, when the killer arrived, Vera’s date might have just left. She’s already changed out of her play clothes and she’s back in her everyday duds and getting ready to head back home. When there’s a knock on the door, she naturally assumes it’s her lover. After all, he hasn’t been gone all that long.”
Lamar’s eyebrows rose, and I knew a question was going to follow.
“The jelly bracelets,” I said, fingering my own arm as if I had a mess of them on. “She’d changed her clothes, but she hadn’t had a chance to take off the bracelets yet.”
Seeing the logic, he nodded.
“Or,” I said, marching to the far side of the mausoleum, then turning to come back the other way, “or her date hadn’t shown up yet, although…” I hurried over to where I’d left the file and flipped through the crime scene photos again, just to confirm something to myself. “I think he’d already been and gone. See? Look at how the sheets are tossed around. The bed’s definitely been used, and not for sleeping.”
“Really!” Lamar’s lips thinned. “Isn’t it bad enough the press trashed poor Vera’s reputation? Do you have to, too?”
“I have to find out the truth, remember?” I looked him in the eye. “You’re the one who asked me to get involved.”
“Yes, of course. It’s just that-”
“And what difference does Vera’s reputation make at this point? The girl’s been dead for more than twenty years.”
“Yes, she has, but-”
“And you can’t deny that she was at that motel for a little action. I mean, why else hang around in a place like that? In a city far from where she was likely to meet anybody she knew? That tells me she was screwing somebody who might have been recognized down near Central State.”
Lamar winced at my choice of words, but he didn’t argue. I mean, how could he?
“You also have to admit that any way you look at it, the whole thing’s a little kinky. Whoever the guy was, he must have been into young chicks. In that trashy outfit, she would have looked like a teenager.”
“You’re wrong. I know you’re wrong.” Lamar ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. “There’s something we’re missing,” he said. “Something we’re not seeing. Let me have a look at that picture again. The close-up of Vera.”
I found the picture he wanted and held it up for him to see.
“What?” I asked, when his eyes narrowed just a bit. “What do you-”
“She’s not wearing it. Her locket.” If he could have tapped the photo that showed Vera’s very bare neck, he would have. “She always wore a little gold locket. Always. She told me it was a family heirloom, her grandmother’s, I think she said. She opened it once to show me. There was a picture of her grandmother inside. She was holding a baby, Vera’s mother. Show me her graduation photo again.”
I found one of the newspaper articles. In it, Vera was wearing the locket.
“That’s a clue. It’s got to be,” Lamar insisted.
“Granny’s little gold locket doesn’t exactly mesh with the tramp image,” I told him. “She probably took it off when-”
“Read over the list of personal effects again.”
I did. There was no mention of the locket.
“What does it mean?” I asked him.
But before he had a chance to answer, we heard an unmistakable “Yoo hoo!” from right outside the door.
Ella stuck her head inside the mausoleum just as Lamar poofed away into nothingness. I was sure she was there to see me, but, Ella being Ella, she was easily distracted. And nothing distracts a cemetery geek more than an old moldy mausoleum.
“Well, isn’t this wonderful!” Grinning, she stepped inside and looked around. “Neoclassical, with a base plinth and paneled corner pilasters! It’s got a double-leaf cast-iron door, and of course, you noticed the pediment and dentiled entablature outside. It’s glorious. Hi, Pepper.”
I returned the greeting and whispered a silent prayer that I never grew up to be Ella. “What’s up?”
“Had to be here for the big announcement.”
It made me nervous when she said things like that. “Big announcement about-”
“Oh, you’ll find out. And when you do, just don’t forget, I’m always available to help in any way I can.” Her eyes twinkling, she grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the mausoleum, and it was a good thing she was in a hurry. She never noticed the file folder I tucked behind Jake’s cooler when we zipped by.
When we emerged again into the sunlit afternoon, Greer was standing nearby with her faithful cameraman. So were the members of Team One.
“Over here.” Greer waved the cameraman toward the section where my team was slaving away. “Let’s get a couple shots of them all dirty and sweaty, you know, to show what hard work it is. Ms. Martin…” She waved me closer. “Why don’t you get over there and pitch in. That way when Team One arrives with their challenge…” When Greer giggled, it was not a pretty sound. “Let’s get a move on, people!” She clapped her hands, and when I didn’t move at a pace that was fast enough for her, she poked a finger into the small of my back. “Roll the tape!” she cried.
Mae Tannager scooted into the newly cleared section right behind me. “We’ve got a challenge.” She’d obviously been instructed what to say. Mae delivered the line with as much pizzazz as a fluffy pink woman could. “Team Two, we, the members of Team One…” Like Vanna in front of the letter board, she motioned, and her teammates tromped into position. Mae cleared her throat and consulted the rumpled piece of notepaper she had clutched in one hand. “As you know, our job here at Monroe Street Cemetery is going to be done in just a few more weeks. But there’s a dedicated group of volunteers who are going to take over the revitalization work we’ve started. It wouldn’t be right to leave them without the resources to complete the restoration. We’ve got to help them out. And we’re going to do that by leaving them enough money to continue the work we’ve begun here. Team One…” Again, she motioned. Again, her teammates sparkled for the camera. “Team One announces a fundraising challenge. The team that raises the most money will be awarded extra points in the competition.”
Their smiles stayed firmly in place-one second, two, three-while the camera rolled. The minute it was turned off, though, Bianca, Lucinda, and Gretchen walked away. Mae still twinkled because, as far as I could see, there wasn’t a time when Mae didn’t twinkle. And Katherine Lamb?
She narrowed her eyes and shot me and my team a look.
“We’ve already decided we’re doing a tea,” she said. “So don’t even think about it. That’s the best fundraising idea, and it’s already taken.”
Thinking about the fundraiser kept me up half the night, wondering how I was going to pull it off. My mind racing, I obsessed my way through the most logical choices:
We could sell parts from jacked cars.
Or incredibly ugly clothing.
We could send Crazy Jake out to photograph weddings.
Or rent out Delmar and Reggie by the hour. They had enough groupies waiting for them every day outside the gates of Monroe Street. I had no doubt we could make a few bucks.
The solution to my problem hit as most solutions do, right around three in the morning. That gave me the rest of the night to worry about my other problem-the one involving the dead secretary and her just-as-dead-but-not-gone boss.
Believe me, even though I was thinking fundraising, I hadn’t forgotten about either Lamar or Vera Blaine. I even had a plan. The next morning, dragging from lack of sleep but looking as good as ever thanks to a little under-eye concealer, a gold-colored organic cotton tunic that brought out the fiery highlights in my hair, and a pair of khakis, I arrived at Monroe Street with a bus schedule in hand.
After all, I couldn’t show up in my Mustang when I went to look for a used car.
I convened an early-morning meeting with my teammates inside the mausoleum, the better to keep Greer from sneaking up on us, or our fans outside the fence from catching wind of our plans. Waiting for everyone to get settled, I glanced around.
Big points for Absalom. He’d agreed to enter the mausoleum, even if he was plastered against the door. Of course, he’d brought reinforcements. He had a new, small voodoo doll clutched in one hand. It was dressed in leather, and its hair was the color of popcorn-buttery, light, and fluffy.
As soon as he sat down, Delmar opened his sketchbook and got to work drawing one of the architectural details inside the mausoleum. For all I knew, it was that dental thing Ella had talked about the day before. Reggie was leaning against the wall. Sammi looked bored and a little sticky in a white vinyl top, white vinyl shorts, and a sparkling headband designed (I’m sure) to look like a halo. It was a little too out there for me, but Crazy Jake liked it. He took a picture.
I tried for a smile and hoped to hell it looked enthusiastic. This was a tough crowd; they couldn’t be easily fooled.
“We’re going to do an art show,” I said.
When my brilliant suggestion was met with stony silence, I looked around at my teammates again. “Come on, I thought you’d all be a little more enthusiastic.”
“We would, if we cared.” This from Sammi, who pulled an emery board from a purse made out of a Cheerio’s box and got to work on her nails.
“We don’t know nothin’ about art,” Reggie said. “Unless you’re talking porn.” He wiggled his eyebrows. I pretended not to notice.
“What, we’re supposed to hang with some snooty art crowd?” Delmar was not happy even thinking about this. “You expect us to sip wine and walk around some stupid, stuffy art gallery and-”
“Now, now.” From his place near the door, Absalom quieted the protests. “Let’s hear the lady out,” he said. “She’s probably as crazy as a loon, but you never know.”
I thanked him with a smile. “My mom used to chair fundraisers all the time,” I told them. “You know, for my dance school when we planned a trip to New York to see the Rockettes, or for one of the medical associations my dad belonged to, or…” I waved away the rest of the explanation. I could already see that my teammates weren’t interested. Even with Absalom’s support, I knew I’d be in trouble if I didn’t get right down to business.
“I remember when she did a couple art gallery fundraisers. They brought in a lot of people and a lot of money. And you heard what Mae said yesterday, the rules state that the team that brings in the most money is going to get extra points in the competition. But Delmar, you’re right. The people who came to those art shows, well, they were a boring crowd. Which is why we’re not going to feature some artist nobody’s ever heard of whose paintings nobody likes anyway. Our art show is bound to be way more interesting than any tea Team One could host. Our art show is going to feature all of you.”
I waited for the shouts of triumph. The ones that would proclaim my brilliance.
When all I got was blank looks, I acted like it didn’t matter and went right on.
“Absalom, you make your voodoo dolls from pieces and parts of old cars, right?”
He looked at the doll in his hands. “Not always old cars. Sometimes, when we chop one that’s really fine-you know a Hummer or a Lexus-I like to do something a little special. This one’s got bits of the leather upholstery from a BMW 335i, see.” He held up the doll. “The hair’s made out of stuffing inside the front seat of an Audi Q7,” he said. “And the body-”
I stopped him with a look. It was probably best if we didn’t know any more details. “Sammi, you have your original clothing designs you could show off, and Delmar, you’ve got your drawings.”
“I have pictures.” As if to prove it, Jake took one.
“And me?” His arms crossed over his chest, Reggie’s chin shot out. I knew a challenge when I saw one, and I was prepared for it.
“I was going to ask you to be our curator,” I said, pulling out one of the art history degree words my parents had paid a bundle for me to learn and I’d never used. “You’re going to be in charge of designing the displays and figuring out how to put it all together.”
Until Absalom breathed, “No shit!”
And with his official approval noted, the rest of the crew went right along.
“Can we sell our stuff?” Sammi asked. “I mean, if it’s on display and somebody asks-”
“I don’t see why not. And you can keep all that money.” I doubted it was how real art shows worked, but there was no way this crowd was going to cooperate otherwise. “We’ll make our money from the tickets we sell to people to get in to see the show. I know Ella will let us use space at Garden View for the exhibit, and she’s got lots of connections. We’ll get cheese and fruit and wine donated. It’s perfect.”
It apparently was. When they went out to begin the work of assessing the damage, then lifting and resetting the headstones that had been toppled over the years, my teammates were actually discussing the show and what they’d each do to prepare for it.
Did their unusual cooperation and good spirits make me complacent? Absolutely!
Which is why I wasn’t prepared when just a couple minutes later, I heard a scream that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I raced into our section and found that Absalom, Reggie, and Delmar had beaten me to the fence. Jake didn’t waste any time. He was already taking pictures of Sammi, eye to eye with that cheatin’ dog, Virgil.
The screaming I heard was coming from Virgil. I didn’t recognize his voice because it was a couple octaves higher than any guy’s ought to be. But then, he had a good excuse. Sammi had waited for him to get nice and close, then reached through the fence and grabbed him by the balls. She wasn’t about to let go, either. The more he howled, the harder she squeezed.
There was plenty of commotion, what with Virgil’s wailing, Sammi’s triumphant shouts, the rest of the team’s urging her on, and our fans outside the fence cheering like they were at a football game. That would explain how Greer and her ever-present cameraman appeared out of nowhere.
They started filming the moment Greer realized there was murder in Sammi’s eyes and her face was twisted with anger. “You got a lot of nerve comin’ here and tellin’ me Carmela’s pregnant,” Sammi yelled. “Gee, Virgil, I don’t suppose you know who the kid’s father is, do you?”
In spite of his pain, Virgil managed a smirk. It was not a good strategy.
Sammi’s face went pale. Right before a color like fire shot up her neck and into her cheeks. Honest to gosh, it looked like her head was going to explode.
That’s why I moved forward and dared to put a hand on her arm. “Sammi-”
“Don’t you touch me! Don’t you ever touch me.” She let go of Virgil and turned on me so fast, I never had a chance to react. Sure, she was shorter than me, but Sammi was all muscle, and she was worked into a frenzy. If I wasn’t so surprised, I would have fought back. But I was surprised, and her hands went around my throat before I could do anything about it.
Her fingers dug into my skin, harder, tighter, and my windpipe closed. Stars burst behind my eyes. It happened so fast, I don’t think I even had a chance to pass out, but the next thing I knew, I was lying flat on the ground and Sammi was on top of me, squeezing the life out of me.
It took all of Absalom’s muscle to drag her off, and the second he did, Delmar dropped down next to me. He put an arm around my shoulders and helped me sit up. “You OK?”
I would have answered him if I could talk. Or even drag in a breath.
Reggie was on the other side of me. He put a bottle of water to my lips.
I sipped. I sputtered. My throat opened and I gasped, hauled in a breath, coughed, and realized that I was covered with dirt. First things first. I had my image to worry about. Before I did anything else, I brushed the dust off my khakis.
“Don’t try to talk,” Reggie said, at the same time Greer stuck a microphone in my face.
“We’ve got it all on tape,” she said, as breathless as I was, though as far as I could see, she didn’t have nearly the same good reason I did. “It will make great evidence. You are going to press charges, aren’t you?”
Absalom still had a hold on Sammi, who was red in the face and breathing hard. She looked over at the sidewalk outside the fence just as I did, and seeing that Virgil was gone, some of the stiffness went out of her shoulders. She closed her eyes, leaned back against Absalom, and a single tear trickled down her cheek.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I wasn’t about to go all Ghandi or anything. I would have loved to see Sammi out of my life and locked up where she couldn’t do me-or my clothing-any more harm. But I sure wasn’t going to give Greer the satisfaction of catching my revenge on tape.
I told her no with a shake of my head.
The excitement over, a very disappointed Greer stayed around just long enough to watch Delmar and Reggie help me to my feet. I brushed off the seat of my pants, and when Sammi opened her mouth to say something-I hoped it was an apology-I stopped her.
“We’ll talk later,” I promised, each word painful and rasping. I looked down at the mess that was my outfit. “I’ve got to get cleaned up. I’ve got someplace… someplace to go.”
And God help me, I headed toward the Porta potti.
After all, I had to shop for a used car, and while I didn’t want to look too prosperous, I sure couldn’t go looking like I did.
Porta potti aside, there was one consolation in the whole ugly incident: after tussling with Sammi, I was pretty sure that talking to Bad Dog Raphael was going to be a piece of cake.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I hate public transportation. It’s smelly. It’s dirty. It doesn’t run on my time schedule, and as fate would have it, I ended up sitting next to an old guy who smelled like stale cigars and talked to himself.
But I will say this much for it-the bus I got on near the cemetery spit me out right in front of Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation.
Even if I hadn’t looked up the address, I would have recognized the place anywhere. It was hard to miss that car up at the top of a twenty-foot pole. Or the giant mechanical bulldog driving it, the one that was waving one arm to entice buyers in.
I was there to get an overall impression, both of the Big Car Nation and of its owner, so I stood on the sidewalk for a couple minutes and looked around. My ten-minute bus ride had kept me well within the Cleveland city limits, in a neighborhood where the McDonald’s across the street was built to look like a hacienda in a Zorro movie. There was a same-day check-cashing place to the right of the car lot, and on the left, a convenience store. It had bars on the windows and a security guard outside.
Bad Dog’s car lot took up the better part of one whole block, and aside from that monstrosity of a hacienda, it was the brightest spot I could see in the urban blight that surrounded me. There was a line of cars parked along the perimeter of the lot, and every one of them was washed and shined to perfection, their attributes screaming from their windshields in red and blue crayon: AUTOMATIC! LOW MILEAGE! NEW TIRES!
Beyond the cars was a cinder-block office. It had a door on one side with a welcome sign above it and another sign below that declared HABLAMOS ESPAÑOL. To the left of the door was a picture window, and inside, I could see a couple people scurrying around. Neither of them was Bad Dog.
Before I could take another step, I was corralled by a middle-aged man with thinning hair and thick glasses. He was wearing jeans and a powder blue sport coat that had seen better days. Then again, I was dressed in khakis that had a smudge of dirt across the butt and a shirt that had a hole in one elbow. If nothing else, my walk on the cemetery wild side was teaching me to be tolerant when it came to fashion disasters.
The man’s nametag told me he was Bud. He stuck out a hand. “You look like a little lady who could use some help.”
I was nice enough not to point out that no matter how thick his glasses, there was no way I looked like a little lady. Not to anyone. Instead, I started right in.
“I need a car,” I said, and I was sure to add, “A good one,” so that I sounded serious.
I shrugged. “It has to be dependable,” I said. “And I don’t have a lot of money.”
“Dependable is not a problem.” His grin showed off crooked, yellow teeth. “How’s about you just come on in and fill out a credit application.”
“Shouldn’t we look at cars first?”
His grin got bigger. “See, that’s the mistake most folks make,” he said. “They get their hearts set on a car, then find out they can’t afford it. You don’t want that to happen to you, do you, little lady?”
I assured him I didn’t, and I followed him inside the cinder-block building, where I sat on a metal chair and filled out a credit application with the pen Bud took out of his shirt pocket. It leaked. When I was done, Bud trotted back in my direction. “You know, Bud…” I gave him a simmering little smile. “I was hoping to meet Bad Dog himself.”
Bud’s gaze went briefly to a door across the office marked PRIVATE. It was closed. “He’s a busy man,” he said. “I can help you just fine.”
I kept my smile firmly in place, even when Bud stepped a little closer. “I’m sure you can. It’s just that… well, I’ve seen Bad Dog on all those commercials, and it’s like… well, I feel like I practically know him. That’s why I came here in the first place. And then when I mentioned it at work… people told me…” I bucked up my courage and leaned in closer to Bud. He smelled like old socks. I held my breath and whispered, “Somebody said Bad Dog was in prison once.”
Before Bud could answer, a weird thing happened. A red carnation appeared right in front of my face. Surprised, I stepped back and slid my gaze in the direction of Bad Dog’s office. The door was open now, and Bad Dog himself was on the other end of that flower. Close enough to touch, and definitely close enough for him to hear what I’d just said.
I stepped back and looked Bad Dog over. It was, after all, what that bus ride and this nonsense about needing a car was all about. Even if I could come right out and ask if he had anything to do with Vera Blaine’s death, there was no way he was going to tell me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t dig, just a little, and size him up while I was at it.
Like he was in the commercials I’d seen, Bad Dog was wearing an expensive suit and a smile that crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. That scar above his left eye should have been gross. Instead, it enhanced his dark and deadly image. His hair was the color of strong coffee. His voice was as rich as Dove dark chocolate. Oh yeah, Mack Raphael was suave, all right.
I told myself not to forget that if everything Quinn said about him was true, he was also unreformed and plenty dangerous.
“Thank you, Bud, I’ll take it from here.” Bad Dog dismissed the salesman with a curt nod then turned a smile on me as sleek as the Porsche my dad used to drive. “Red carnation. Get it? Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation?”
I smiled like I thought it was funny, and when he offered the flower again, I had no choice but to take it.
“I save them for the pretty customers,” he said. “For you…” He stepped back and looked me over as carefully as I had just studied him. “Maybe I should have brought out a whole dozen.”
“That’s so sweet!” I sniffed the flower because I figured that’s what I was supposed to do. “I knew you’d be just like you are in your commercials. So-”
“Handsome?” Bad Dog laughed.
Years of dating had done nothing if not taught me how to blush on command. “I was going to say friendly.”
“Yet you’re worried. About my reputation. I couldn’t help but overhear what you said to Bud. You know, about my background. Does that matter when it comes to buying a car?”
“If I can’t trust you…” I could twinkle with the best of them, and I pulled out all the stops. “Then I can’t trust your cars.”
Bad Dog laughed. “We’re going to get along just fine.”
“But only if your prices are good. And your cars are dependable. And that means, really, I need to know about-”
“Prison. Yes, of course.” Bad Dog made a gesture with one arm that invited me to walk with him. I did, and he led me outside. “Sedan or SUV?” he asked and that was that-the subject had officially been changed. “Color? Is it important? Yes, of course, color is always important to a woman. I’ve found that the more beautiful a woman is, the more she cares about color and style. I think that means you must care very, very much.”
I was supposed to be flattered. If there wasn’t that whole drug empire/murder/prison thing to consider, I actually might have been. The way it was, I could see I was going to get nowhere fast with Mack Raphael. Not if I wasn’t clever, and very, very careful.
“Sedan,” I said. “Red if you have one in my price range. I’d prefer American made, leather seats if at all possible, a moon roof, and I’d rather not have a gas guzzler. I’m all about saving the environment.”
“Of course.” He led me to a maroon Ford. No moon roof and it had more than a hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Raphael opened the driver’s door. “Get in, why don’t you? Try it out. We could take it for a test drive.”
We could, but being that alone with Mack Raphael was not in my game plan.
I slid behind the steering wheel. “It was Central State, wasn’t it?” I asked him.
“If you know so much, why do you need me to confirm it?”
“Fair question. But like I said…” I skimmed a hand over the dashboard. It was spotless. “I can barely afford a car, and I can’t afford one at all if it isn’t going to last. If you’re not honest-”
“As the day is long!” He held up one hand, Boy Scout-style.
I smiled as if I was satisfied. Right before I asked, “How long ago?”
He thought he was home free. Which was why his expression clouded. “Before you were born.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“I was there from ’82 to ’90.”
And Vera Blaine had been murdered in ’84, I reminded myself. I also told myself not to lose heart. If Bad Dog could run drugs from inside the prison, surely it couldn’t be hard to arrange a hit and the frame-up of a warden he hated.
“I was a kid then,” I said. I ran my hand below the edge of the front seat, found the little lever, and moved the seat back. “It must have been terrible.”
He knew I wasn’t talking about the height of the last person to drive this car. “It was an education. Prison always is for those who are smart enough to see it that way. Believe me, I learned a powerful lesson. That’s why I’m an honest businessman today.”
He smiled down at me.
I smiled up at him while I wondered how I could tippy-toe my way back into a topic as delicate as a lengthy incarceration. Have no fear, I would have found the words.
If Absalom hadn’t shown up.
“There you are.” He strode through the line of parked cars like he had every right to be there, and when he got over to the maroon Ford, he glared. “Told you, woman, we don’t need no new car. The one you got, it’s good enough for you.”
“Family squabble?” Bad Dog looked sorry to find out I had a significant other. “Perhaps I should let you two talk privately.”
“Don’t need to talk.” Absalom reached into the car, grabbed me by the arm, and hauled me out. “We ain’t buying a car. Not today.”
I shook him off. “That doesn’t mean I can’t look.”
“Means you’re wasting this good man’s time. And you got work to do back at Monroe Street. Crazy woman works in a cemetery,” he told Bad Dog. “Which only goes to prove how really crazy she is.”
With no choice but to go along with Absalom, and itching to find out what he was up to and why he was there, I was about to walk away. Bad Dog stopped me, one hand on my arm. “Monroe Street. That’s not just any cemetery. Isn’t that the cemetery where Jefferson Lamar is buried?”
I blinked-actually, I batted my eyelashes-and asked, “Who?”
Bad Dog put a friendly hand on my back. “Just a name from the past. And not important. I hope when you both decide you need a car, you’ll come back to see me. Promise?”
I did, and with a straight face, too.
And I kept that straight face firmly in place until Absalom and I crossed the street and walked into the Mc-Donald’s parking lot.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked him.
“You ain’t askin’ the questions today, I’m askin’ the questions,” he growled. “Like what the hell you doin’ tanglin’ with a man like Bad Dog?”
“We weren’t tangling. We were talking. About buying a car.”
“Except you don’t need a car.”
“And you-” He led me over to where my Mustang was parked. “How-”
Absalom opened the door and got behind the wheel, and I got in on the passenger side. “What-”
“Knew you were up to something you shouldn’t be up to. Figured you must be with the way you been readin’ over files and hurryin’ out at all crazy hours. Had to follow you,” he said. “Didn’t think I could do that very efficiently on a bus.”
“But…” I opened my purse, pulled out my car keys, and dangled them in front of his face. “I’ve got my keys. How did you-”
His laugh rumbled through the Mustang. “You think not having keys can stop me? You’re crazier than I told Bad Dog you were.” He wheeled out of the parking lot and cruised down Lorain Avenue, heading back toward the cemetery. At the next red light, he popped open my glove box and reached inside. He handed me the new voodoo doll I’d seen at the cemetery that morning, the one with the leather dress and the fluffy hair.
“That there is a juju guardian,” he said. “It provides protection from evil.”
And he must have known what I was going to ask, because he kept right on talking. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Pepper, but I can tell you one thing. If you’re going to go messin’ with a man like Bad Dog Raphael, you’re going to need all the protection you can get.”
Over the next week, a couple weird things happened. For one thing, the next episode of Cemetery Survivor aired, and when it did, we found out that in spite of the couple Sammi vs. Virgil knockdowns, our team and Team One were tied, points-wise. After the show aired, something even more surprising happened. We had more fans than ever. Go figure. Apparently, a lot of people were watching the show, and the more calls the station got and the more people who showed up outside the gates of Monroe Street, the more the whole superstardom thing went to everyone’s heads. Greer was sure her next stop was network news. Mae and her bunch (doesn’t it figure?) said they were humbled, and just grateful they could promote their good deeds to a wider audience. And my team? My team loved feeling like rock stars.
I was on the fence. From what I’d heard, the last episode opened with a shot of Sammi choking the life out of me. I knew this because both my aunts called my mom to update her, and my mom called my dad to tell him. Dad’s phone access was limited, but that hadn’t stopped him from leaving messages, and Mom was text messaging like every ten minutes, asking if I shouldn’t see a doctor, and did it still hurt, and had the bruises gone away yet, and wouldn’t I be better off in Florida with her and away from cemeteries and dangerous people?
Honestly, I’d be happy when this restoration gig was over. If I didn’t have to worry about TV and landscaping and headstones and the like, I could get back to Garden View, where my biggest worry was how to avoid Ella so I could get some ghostly investigating done.
As if all that wasn’t enough, on the Thursday after the show aired, I got another bouquet of flowers, this time at Monroe Street. Like the last bouquet, this one included a card, but just like with the last bouquet, the card wasn’t signed. In fact, all it said was, “I watched you.” Unlike the last bouquet, I was smart enough not to call Quinn to ask if he had anything to do with the flowers. I hadn’t heard a word from him since that day he walked out of my apartment, and I sure hadn’t called him. I wasn’t going to be the first one to cave. Besides, I knew Quinn well enough to know he knew me well enough to know that he couldn’t buy me off with a mere bunch of daisies and a couple sprigs of greenery. His offense called for roses. Red roses. I knew he knew it, too.
As for these flowers…
I tossed the card and the problem aside. I had bigger fish to fry and more pressing things to think about. Like the appointment I had that evening with the notorious Reno Bob Oates. If he was still as nasty as Darcy Coleman said he was, he sure hadn’t sounded like it when I talked to him on the phone the night before. But then, I hadn’t mentioned I was coming by to find out if he killed Vera Blaine.
“Looks like you’re all set for the day.” I’d seen Bianca’s silver Jag roll into the cemetery, so I wasn’t surprised when she walked over to the tent/office where I was gathering what we’d need for the day. She looked me over and nodded her approval. We were scheduled to do some digging and hauling, so I’d worn jeans and a T-shirt, but they were clean and stylish and I was (it goes without saying) meticulously put together. “Do you like working at a cemetery?” Bianca asked.
Suddenly face-to-face with my idol asking the question I dreamed she’s someday ask me, I found myself at a loss for words. I laughed away my uneasiness. “I can think of a thousand places I’d rather work,” I said.
“Like La Mode?”
My heart shot into my throat. “Are you asking-”
“Oh, just putting out some feelers.” She laughed, too, in a noncommittal sort of way. “I like to keep an eye out for promising young talent. I think you could really make an impact on the local fashion scene. You’ve got a sense of style, and obviously, the good taste to go with it, and I’ll tell you what, you’d look fabulous in our clothing. You’d show it off to perfection and sell a bundle in the process. If there’s ever an opening for what we call a wardrobe consultant at the shop-”
“You’ll call me?” I blurted out, then scrambled to save face. “Nothing like looking too eager,” I said, cringing.
Bianca didn’t hold it against me. “There’s nothing wrong with being eager,” she said. “In fact, I admire enthusiasm. It shows you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get what you want.”
“I am. I do.” My smile was perky enough to suit a La Mode wardrobe consultant. “I will.”
“Good. Then we’ll talk.” And with that, Bianca went back to her car, got out a picnic basket, and headed over to the section where Team One was working.
Digging and hauling aside, I was still walking around with my head in the clouds that afternoon when Greer called us together. She’d been lurking around all week, of course, following us with that damned camera and the cameraman who did as he was told without ever saying a word. This was the first meeting she’d called since the last episode aired, and like my team, I’d heard local PBS ratings were up and donations to the station were, too. All thanks to us. Like them, I was hoping for a little rah-rah and some congratulations to go along with it.
What we got instead was Greer, in a gray and dumpy suit. “Now that we’ve got people watching,” she said without preamble, “it’s time to start educating them. This is our opportunity to add a little culture to their lives.”
“They don’t watch for no culture.” We were in Team One’s section, and Absalom pushed off from a headstone with an angel atop it. “They watch to see Reggie and Delmar.”
“Yeah.” Delmar grinned. “And they watch to see Sammi kick Pepper’s butt.”
If he wasn’t smiling when he said it, I would have held it against him. The way it was, the red abrasions on my neck were just starting to fade, so I was feeling magnanimous.
“This week, they’ll watch because we’re going to invite people to our tea.” Mae beamed a smile all around. It was stiff around the edges. “Of course, you’re all invited, too.”
“Don’t need your stupid tea.” Sammi tossed her head. “We’re gonna knock your socks off with our-”
I shushed her fast. So far, the art show was our secret. I didn’t need her leaking it, especially before Team One hosted its tea. As old and sweet and pink as she was, something told me Mae wouldn’t be above finding some artwork to display at the tea and scooping our idea out from under us.
“That was good.” I should have known Greer was filming, but honestly, by this time, I was so used to her and that camera, I hadn’t even been paying attention. “The way you cut Sammi off like that, Pepper, that provided a great dynamic.” She glanced at Sammi. “You want to take a swing at Pepper?”
Sammi rolled her eyes and walked away.
“Anyway…” Greer got back down to business. “We’re going to get some nice shots this afternoon. I was thinking of something to really set the mood for the announcement about the tea. Maybe a shot of Team One working and their picnic baskets stacked in the foreground?” It was obviously never meant to be a question, so she signaled to her cameraman and he got to work arranging the baskets artfully.
He’d already put a couple in place when he hefted the one he was holding. “This one’s heavy. What can little old ladies have in their picnic baskets?”
It was the first thing I’d ever heard Charlie the cameraman say, but that wasn’t why his comment interested me so.
I thought about the box we’d found at Jefferson Lamar’s gravesite and if the camera wasn’t rolling, I would have slapped myself smack on the forehead.
I’d been so busy suspecting my own teammates of walking off with the coin, I hadn’t bothered to think it might be someone else.
What could little old ladies have in their picnic baskets?
I wasn’t sure, but as soon as I had the chance, I intended to find out.
“ Whatdoyoumean,youthought one of us took ”that coin?” Absalom was the spokesman for the team, so he was the one up in my face making me regret I’d ever mentioned my theory about Team One having the coin, or my suspicions about what had happened to it in the first place. Outraged, he sputtered, “You think one of us would actually steal something?”
I saw the irony of that question, even if he didn’t. The way I rolled my eyes was designed to point that out. “What do you mean you wouldn’t steal anything? Some of you have.” I made sure I looked at everyone, just so Absalom didn’t feel singled out. “You’ve stolen plenty.”
He opened his mouth, all set to keep arguing.
Until the sense of what I said hit.
Absalom snapped his mouth shut, backed up a step, and roared with laughter.
“You got me there!” What was supposed to be a friendly slap on the shoulder was more like a thud coming from him. I staggered and started laughing, too.
Delmar had a wide smile on his face. “We wouldn’t steal from family,” he said, then blushed. “I mean, it’s hokey and all, but we’re sort of like a family, aren’t we? And none of us would ever-”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I caught my breath and apologized, grateful I didn’t have a full-scale mutiny on my hands. Theoretically, I suppose I deserved one. “I never should have suspected you. Not any of you. I never would have. But back when we found the coin, I didn’t know you as well. I’m sorry.”
“You think one of them rich ladies did it?” Reggie’s eyes glowed at the prospect.
“I think it’s a possibility. If they caught wind of the fact that we found something unusual at Jefferson Lamar’s grave, they might want to hide it. You know, so we couldn’t reveal it on the show. They’d know that would make our section look too interesting.”
“And they wouldn’t want us to look too smart, neither.” Sammi crossed her arms over her chest and puffed out a breath of annoyance. “They got a lot of damned nerve.”
“Well, we don’t know if they’re the ones who did it,” I cautioned. “We won’t know. Not until we can get a look in those picnic baskets. They bring them every day, and it’s logical that the coin might still be in the basket. It’s not like they would have taken it anywhere or sold it or anything. They just want to keep it away from us.”
Absalom rubbed his beefy hands together. “So what are we going to do?”
“Create a diversion, I suppose.” It was as much of a plan as I had. “If we can get them out of their section, somebody can sneak over there and take a look in those baskets.”
“And I got just the diversion.” Sammi stalked over to where I stood and raised her voice. It was as shrill as a train whistle and in the quiet of the afternoon, it carried plenty far. She propped her fists on her hips. “Say what? Say what? You know what you can do with these frickin’ maps of yours…” There was a stack of cemetery maps on a nearby headstone, and she picked them up and waited for her opportunity. The moment Greer, her cameraman, and all the members of Team One came running to see what the commotion was all about, she side-handed those maps across the section.
It was perfect, and I joined right in. What did we fight about?
I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter, anyway.
Sammi yelled, and I yelled right back. She screamed, and I screamed louder. We pointed fingers in each other’s faces. We snapped and scowled. We kept it up until Delmar slipped away and came back a couple minutes later, and when he did, there was a grin on his face. Just as I hoped, when Sammi and I stopped fighting, our audience disappeared. Delmar explained that he’d found the box exactly where we thought it would be, in one of the picnic baskets that belong to Team One. He handed it over, and I checked to be sure the coin was still inside it, then tucked it in my purse. After high fives all around, my team went home for the evening.
And it wasn’t until they were gone and I was going around picking up those maps Sammi tossed that I realized just how good all that yelling and screaming felt.
I guess I’d been pissed for a long time and I never even knew it.
Let me count the ways.
I was pissed at Sammi for being a royal pain, and specifically for ruining that new gold cotton tunic of mine and bruising my neck.
I was pissed at Quinn for not calling, and pissed at my parents for calling, especially my dad, who, as long as he was at it, left one message asking if everything was OK and another saying he really would like to see me one of these days.
I was pissed about being stuck restoring a cemetery when I should have been working on proving that an upstanding guy like Jefferson Lamar shouldn’t have had to die in prison while whoever framed him sat back to laugh about it.
While I was at it, I might as well admit that I was plenty pissed at the universe in general, too, for allowing a kid like Vera Blaine to get murdered in a dumpy motel while she was wearing jelly bracelets.
When he was young, Robert Oates was a tough-talking punk who made a name for himself on the Cleveland streets by stealing cars and overseeing a couple small-time heists. He spent the better part of his formative years in and out of a variety of boys’ homes, reform schools, and jails, and by the time he was twenty-four, he graduated to bigger and better things. He went out to Nevada, where he earned the Reno nickname, and worked as an enforcer for a variety of crime bosses. By all accounts, he had a vicious streak, and he added hard drinking, heavy gambling, and high living to his resume. It’s no surprise that he made plenty of enemies, or that he was forced to come back to the city of his birth when things got a little too hot for him out west.
By the time he masterminded the bank job that got him sent to Central State, he was middle-aged and desperate for a big score. The bomb he said he had when he stuck up that bank was his idea of a joke. Nobody was laughing.
All this information I’d found online about Reno Bob went through my head as I drove through the suburbs west of Cleveland, looking for the address he had given me when we talked on the phone. I found it, finally, down a quiet side street in Parma, a blue-collar sort of place filled with mom-and-pop stores, churches, bars, and tiny homes.
Reno’s house was a small, neat bungalow with white aluminum siding, blue shutters, and a shade tree on the front lawn. He told me that if I rang the bell-I did-and he didn’t answer-he didn’t-he’d be over at the park across the street, so I moved my car over there, parked in a newly blacktopped lot, and walked past a wooden swing set and a sandbox where someone had left a flattened spare tire.
I’d like to say I wasn’t nervous, but let’s be frank: I’d heard so many bad things about Reno and his temper, my knees were knocking together. They kept it up, too, right until I saw that the only other person in the park was a tiny old man wearing baggy denim shorts, a green and yellow Hawaiian print shirt, and enormous tortoise-shell glasses. Temper or not, if this was Reno Bob, I knew I could take him.
He didn’t look at me when I walked up to him. He was busy working on the canvas he had set up on an easel in front of him.
He was painting a picture of the maple tree about thirty feet from where we stood. The painting included the small lake beyond and the couple ducks and Canada geese that floated by. Art history degree aside, I’m not an expert, but I knew the painting was better than just good, even though the old guy’s hands shook with every stroke.
I waited until he finished adding the last bits of green to the leaves on the tree. “Reno? I’m Pepper.”
“Nobody’s called me Reno in a long time.” When he finally turned to look at me, I saw that his face was as lined as an old blanket. Reno’s arms were stick-skinny and his knees were knobby. He was wearing a brand-spanking-new pair of Nikes that were so clean and white, they made my eyes hurt. “You said you wanted to see me. You didn’t say what you wanted.”
Of course, I expected him to ask-that was the whole point-but I shrugged like I wasn’t sure. “I’ll bet plenty of people want to meet you and talk to you.”
“About the old days?” Reno wiped his hands on a rag he pulled out of his pocket and got to work cleaning up his painting supplies. “Not so much anymore. I used to have a following, you know.”
I saw my opportunity and jumped on it. “Back when you tried to rob that bank with the bomb.” I nodded. “I hear back then, you were like a god or something.”
Behind his glasses, Reno’s eyes glittered. “They all wanted to interview me, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace and even that other guy, that Geraldo. Oh yeah!” He lifted the canvas off the easel. It was almost as big as him, but he didn’t have any trouble slipping it into a wooden carrier. “I was something, all right. They all came down to Central State to talk to me. Even got a couple fellows visiting from Hollywood. They wanted to make a movie about me, you know.”
“Until Jefferson Lamar made sure your visitors were cut off and you were treated just like any other prisoner.”
His hands stilled over his art supplies, and Reno shot a look over his shoulder at me. “You’re too young to know about all that.”
“But not too young to know you must have been plenty mad.”
“You think?” He got back to work, stowing his brushes and his tubes of paint in a plastic carryall. “That was a long time ago.”
“And you don’t hold any of it against Warden Lamar?”
Reno scratched a finger behind his ear. “Warden’s been dead for a lot of years. What happened to him, that doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It might. Maybe to his wife. She thinks he was innocent.”
“What else is a wife going to say? She heard the evidence. Same as we all did. She knows he’s guilty, she just won’t admit it to herself.”
“And if the warden was framed?”
He was done packing his supplies, so Reno turned and gave me his full attention. “Is that what the widow thinks? Did she ask you to come here and talk to me about it? Or is this just something you think?”
“Actually, it’s something I know.”
“Really?” He laughed, then coughed. There was a pack of Camels in his pocket, and he thumped one out, lit it, and took a drag. “Back at Central State, that was back in the day when I hated a lot of people.” The words hissed out of him along with a long stream of nasty smoke that I stepped aside to avoid. “I was angry all the time, you know? I’ve learned to channel my energy. Now, I paint. And I stop and smell the flowers.”
“But back in the day…”
“Back in the day…” He coughed again and spat on the ground. “I didn’t hate nobody as much as I hated Lamar. He thought he could turn Central State into some kind of boot camp. You know, reform everybody. Guess he learned his lesson, huh?”
“Because somebody framed him and he got a taste of his own prison medicine?”
“If that’s what you think.” Reno picked up the crate he’d put his canvas in and hauled it to the blue Prism parked three spaces from my Mustang. I could have been a sport and helped him with the rest of his supplies, but I was afraid if I did, it would give him an excuse to leave. So instead, I waited for him to stow the canvas, then come all the way back.
By the time he did, he was breathing hard.
And I was ready for him.
“If Lamar was framed for Vera Blaine’s murder, who do you think did it?” I asked.
He lit another cigarette. He blew out another stream of smoke. “You think I had something to do with it.”
“I’m talking to everyone I can. You’re one of the people who might have done it.”
“You’re right. I might have.” Reno Bob hoisted the carryall into his arms, his expression as serene as that painting of the tree and those ducks on the pond. “But if that’s true, then you got a hell of a lot of nerve coming here and talking to me.” He turned toward the parking lot. “You could be putting yourself in a lot of danger.”
Was that a nice, friendly warning?
Or a threat?
Since it was the last thing Reno Bob said to me before he got in his car and drove away, I thought about it all the way home. Even then, I still wasn’t certain, not when I got out of the car, slung my purse over my shoulder, and headed for my apartment.
I was still thinking about it when a man jumped out of the alley behind my building, grabbed me, and put a knife to my throat.
“You’re sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, Y bitch.”
The man’s words scraped against my ear. The blade of his knife nicked my skin. I felt a wet, warm drop on my neck, and I didn’t have to think twice to know what it was.
I would have gulped, but I was afraid if I did, my throat would end up even closer to that knife blade.
One of my attacker’s arms was around me, and he yanked me back so fast, my head snapped. “Stay out of it,” he said.
And what did I do? Well, that’s the weird thing, and I guess it means I’ve been in the private investigation business a little too long. Instead of being scared out of my mind like any normal person would be, I was busy trying to think if I’d ever heard his voice before.
I couldn’t place it, and a second after I realized it, I also knew it didn’t matter.
What did matter, see, was me getting out of this little predicament alive.
As far as I could tell, the only way to do that was to take matters into my own hands.
I am not athletic, but remember, I had once taken years of dance lessons. I liked the costumes and, of course, the spotlight, but I could never keep the routines straight, and I hated to practice. Poor Mademoiselle Adrienne, my dance instructor, had despaired of me. Yet somehow, in this the most unlikely of moments, it all came rushing back. In one quick movement (more lurch than en avant), I shot forward just enough to give myself a little momentum, then stepped back with that little ballon bounce Mademoiselle always wanted from me and never got, and slammed my foot against my attacker’s instep. He was caught off guard just long enough to loosen his hold, and when he did, I darted forward, spun around with as much pizzazz as if I was executing an allegro, slipped my purse from my shoulder, and swung. Hard.
Thank goodness for that box we’d snarfed out of the Team One picnic basket. It was nice and hard, and the one side that wasn’t rotted away had a pointy corner. The guy was wearing a ski mask so there was no way I could see his face. I could, however, watch his eyes spin when I hit him in the side of the head.
He grunted a curse, and I took off like a ballerina bat out of hell. I wasn’t dumb enough to stop and try to unlock the door into my apartment building. Instead, I raced straight ahead to the corner where my street intersected with Mayfield Road, the heart of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. It was a beautiful Thursday evening in the middle of the summer, and I knew the restaurants and bars up and down the street would be busy with tourists and diners. There was safety in numbers, and feeling safer in an area where bistro tables lined the sidewalks and people all around me chatted and sipped wine, I stopped long enough to look over my shoulder.
There was no sign of the man with the knife.
That was the coda of my little performance.
Mademoiselle Adrienne would have been proud.
The next morning I had a meeting with Ella at Garden View to discuss the art show set up, and I got there early. I sat at my desk, thinking about what I’d been thinking about all night: Who had I offended? I pulled out a yellow legal pad and wrote down my theories while I fingered the tiny round bandage I’d stuck on my neck to hide the nick from the attacker’s knife. Between him and Sammi, my neck looked like I worked the women’s wrestling circuit.
Did Bad Dog Raphael send the guy with the knife?
I wrote that at the top of page one.
Or was it Reno Bob, feeling a little nervous thanks to all the questions I’d asked?
That was the heading I scribbled on page two.
Did the attack outside my apartment have something to do with the box and the coin I took out of my purse the minute I got home and hid under my bed?
I wrote that on page three, then crossed out the line about where the box was hidden, just in case somebody who might be after the coin got a look at my legal pad.
Maybe Team One has a hit man on staff and the nerve to send him to snuff me out because we raided their precious picnic baskets?
I tore page four from the pad, wadded it into a ball, and tossed it in the wastebasket. At the same time, I stifled a yarn.
In spite of the heroic (not to mention artistic) stand I’d taken against that knife-wielding creep, I’d spent most of the night too wired to sleep and feeling like a victim. Believe me, I didn’t like it one bit. Helpless and frightened does not look good on me. But facts are facts, and the fact is, once I was safely home, I checked three times to make sure my door was locked. I pushed my couch up against it so nobody could kick it down and get to me. I slept with one eye open. And the lights on. And the blinds shut. And the curtains closed.
The good news is that, apparently, even feeling like a victim has its upside. It made me think like a victim, and thinking like a victim, I just naturally thought about Vera Blaine.
What if Vera’s death didn’t have anything to do with Jefferson Lamar?
I wrote this at the top of a new page.
What if Lamar was just the unlucky sucker who got blamed? What if no one wanted to frame him? What if…
I chewed on the end of my pen, thinking about the right way to word my question so that it would stay clear in my head.
What if someone really just wanted Vera Blaine to die?
This was not a new thought. It had first occurred to me during the long, restless night. When I finally gave up even trying to fall asleep, I went into my kitchen, grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia (it was Quinn’s favorite, but since it didn’t look like he was going to be around to eat it any time soon, I figured I might as well), and went through the police file about Vera’s death one more time.
This time, I read her obituary carefully and found out she was the daughter of George and Natalie Blaine, that she didn’t have any siblings, that she had once been a Girl Scout, and-most important-that she was buried right there at Garden View.
Which explains why I was at the cemetery a full hour and a half before I was supposed to meet with Ella.
I flicked on my computer and looked up Vera’s burial information, found the section and grave number, printed it out so I wouldn’t forget, and headed outside. That early on a Friday morning, there weren’t any visitors around, but I heard the hum of the motors as the grounds crew cut the grass.
They were working in the oldest sections of the cemetery. I headed in the other direction and found Vera’s grave tucked between a row of evergreens and a bank of rhododendrons long past blooming. It was marked by a simple blush-colored slab of granite with the inscription: OUR DAUGHTER, VERA BLAINE. 1962-1984. There was no mention of murder.
As ready as I’d ever be, I rubbed my hands together, drew in a breath, closed my eyes, and whispered, “Vera?” Yeah, I’ll admit it, I felt goofy standing there trying to communicate with the dead. Until I reminded myself that if anyone has the right, it’s me. I carry the burden of this stupid Gift. The dead bug me all the time. The least they can do is show up when I need them.
Only Vera didn’t.
I swallowed down my irritation and tried again. “Vera, it’s me, Pepper Martin. You might have heard about me over on the Other Side. I need to talk to you.”
Before I could even stop to think about what I was doing, I found myself wishing Dan Callahan was around.
Right before I told myself to get a grip.
What? I’ve never mentioned Dan? Well, that’s hardly surprising. Dan’s basically the reason I got shot back in Chicago, so I’m justified having issues when it comes to him. Dan’s also…
Honestly, I can’t say what Dan is. He’s a friend. He was almost a lover. He’s been a pain ever since I met him because he lied to me about who-and what-he really is.
Try as I might to think logically, when I thought about Dan, logic flew out the window.
At one time, I thought he liked me, then I figured he was just following me around because he suspected I could commune with the dear ol’ not-so-departed, then I found out he really did like me, a whole lot. Only by that time it wasn’t really me he really liked, it was someone he thought was me, and-
Anyway, the whole thing is pretty complicated. What mattered at this point, though, was that Dan knew a lot about the way the woo-woo world works. If he were there with me, he might have been able to help me scare up Vera. But he wasn’t. That’s because after all that ugly stuff went down in Chicago and I finally confessed about my Gift, I thought Dan would be all over me, ready to tap into it and use my special talents.
Only he didn’t.
In fact, he told me he understood that I needed some space, and some time to recover from everything I’d been through-right before he left the country.
And I’m supposed to stay mad at a guy as sensitive as that?
Warm and fuzzy feelings aside, Dan would know how to get in touch with Vera, and that’s what I needed, someone who could give me firsthand information about why she’d really died.
I’d already given up hope of that ever happening when a car pulled up the road and parked behind mine. Two people got out, a man and a woman. The man was tall and balding. He was wearing plaid pants and a golf shirt. The woman was dressed in a summery printed skirt and a T-shirt as white as her hair. She was small and so frail-looking, I worried that the next brisk wind might blow her right away. They headed in my direction.
What were the chances I’d just gotten the answer to my prayers? Slim and none, I suspected, but I waited anyway. It must have been my lucky day. The woman carried a bunch of daisies and a bottle of water, and she filled the flower holder next to Vera’s grave and set the bouquet in it.
I stepped forward. “Are you Vera’s parents?”
The woman nodded. “I’m Natalie.” She looked at the man at her side. “This is George. And you…” Natalie studied me through filmy eyes. “You’re not one of Vera’s friends. You can’t be. You’re too young.”
“Actually, I work here at Garden View. I’ve been doing some research about Vera. About her murder.”
The word was enough to cause George to wince and make Natalie suddenly look older and as fragile as the flowers in the vase at our feet. George’s expression was rigid. Natalie blinked away a tear. “She was a beautiful girl,” she said. “Everybody loved her.”
“Not everybody.” George didn’t like my comment. I could tell from the way his jaw tightened. Natalie brushed her hand over her cheeks. I couldn’t let that stop me. “The fact that she was murdered pretty much means somebody didn’t like her,” I said.
Natalie shook herself away from the memories, and with George’s help, she got down on her knees and pulled a couple clumps of shaggy grass away from Vera’s headstone. “Someone went to jail for it.”
“You said someone. You didn’t say the killer.”
Her head snapped up. “He was tried and convicted.”
“But you don’t think he did it.”
It wasn’t a question, but I hoped they’d answer it, anyway.
“We told the police about Steve,” George said, his gaze fixed to the horizon. “I guess they didn’t listen.”
“Steve. Steve Ganley.” I’d seen the name listed in the file of people who’d been interviewed after Vera’s murder. “He was-”
“She called him her boyfriend.” Natalie rumbled a little harrumph, and I knew exactly what that meant. I’d heard my mother use that same tone when she didn’t approve of whatever boy I’d been dating at the time.
“You didn’t like him.” I didn’t care which of them answered, so I looked from Natalie to George.
“Had a temper.” George jingled the change in his pocket. “We told the police that, too. We thought once she moved away from Cleveland and took that job down there at Central State-”
“We thought they’d stop seeing each other. But Vera…” As if she still couldn’t understand it, Natalie shook her head. “There’s no accounting for taste. That’s what I always told George. I told him that maybe there was something about Steve we just didn’t understand, some good qualities Vera had discovered.”
“But you never saw any of them.”
The jingling from George’s pocket grew louder. “Never saw much of anything from him,” he said. “He wouldn’t show his face around our place, not after the first time we saw bruises on our Vera’s arm.”
“He hit her?”
Natalie chewed her lower lip. It was up to George to tell the rest of the story. “Vera said it was an accident. She said he didn’t mean it. But I think-”
“We told her she should stop coming back and forth to Cleveland to see him.” Natalie struggled to haul herself to her feet, and I gave her a hand. “We begged her to stop letting him go down to her apartment near Central State to visit. I don’t think she ever listened.”
“So you think he was the one she was meeting at the Lake View Motel that night?” It was a sensitive question, but I couldn’t afford to shy away from it. “Did you tell the cops that?”
“We told the police everything. They said…” George shrugged. “They said it wasn’t him.” He swigged his nose. “Doesn’t matter anymore. None of it. Not anymore.”
I didn’t argue with him, even though I knew he was wrong. What really mattered was that he’d given me another piece of the puzzle that was Vera Blaine’s murder, and another name I could check in the file I’d left at home.
Until then, I went back to the office and got back on the Internet. I didn’t know if the Steve Ganley I found in the Cleveland phone book listing was the same man who’d once bruised Vera Blaine’s arm, but I intended to find out. I wrote down the business address listed, tucked the paper in my purse, and met Ella in the conference room to go over the details of the art show.
She was predictably ecstatic about the idea, and when she volunteered to do all she could to help promote the event, I wasn’t about to argue.
I had other things to take care of.
I left Garden View and stopped at Monroe Street long enough to let my team know I had someplace to go and I’d be back in an hour or so. All would have gone as planned if they hadn’t just planted a couple shrubs. The dirt was newly turned, the sprinklers were on, and my feet went out from under me. My purse flew in one direction, and I went down in the other. In a heap, right in the mud.
Absalom was standing close by. He grabbed my arm, and with one hand, lifted me out of the muck.
I looked down and groaned. Mud covered my khakis and caked the once-pristine emerald green shirt I’d worn with them that day.
“You say you had somewhere to go this morning?” Sammi cringed when she looked at the filth that covered me. “I might have something in the car you could put on.”
I knew better than to say yes, but what’s that saying about desperate times and desperate measures?
Within ten minutes, I was wearing a denim skirt that would have been short on Sammi. On me, it was minuscule. On Sammi’s small frame, the purple T-shirt with St. James emblazoned on it would have been snug. On me, it was just about obscene.
I squirmed. “I can’t go out in public like this!”
“I dunno.” This from Reggie, along with an appreciative look that made my skin crawl. “You’re looking pretty awesome!”
“Pretty something. But not awesome.” I tugged at the skirt.
“You’ll be fine.” Absalom had rescued my purse from the mud, and he wiped it down with a wet paper towel. When he did, it opened, and the paper I’d tucked inside it at Garden View fluttered out. He picked it up, looked it over. “Steve Ganley?”
“Steve the Strip Man?” Reggie darted forward and plucked the paper out of Absalom’s hand. “You’re going to see Steve the Strip Man?”
I wasn’t liking the sound of this, but I wasn’t about to back down, either. Not even when Reggie looked me over one more time, whistled below his breath, and said, “You’re dressed just right!”
I was hoping Steve the Strip Man refinished furniture. Or painted cars. Those hopes were dashed when I pulled up to the address on my computer printout and saw a hot pink neon sign that said: THE THUNDERING STALLION, A GENTLEMAN’S CLUB.
I laid my head on my steering wheel and groaned.
It was early, but according to the sign up front, the Stallion thundered twenty-four, seven. When I walked in, there were a couple men sitting at the bar and a girl on stage in a G-string, sequined pasties, and stilettos so high even I wouldn’t wear them. She looked bored, and hardly old enough to be there. The dozen or so guys in the audience didn’t seem to care.
The beefy bouncer at the door pointed me in the right direction, and I found Steve Ganley in a corner pouring over a pile of papers. He was a middle-aged guy with a paunch and a comb-over. There was an open bottle of scotch on the table in front of him.
He looked up briefly when I approached. “Auditions only on Tuesdays,” he grumbled.
I tugged at my skirt. “I’m not here to audition.”
I guess he didn’t believe me. I guess I couldn’t blame him. He sipped his drink and looked me over. This time he paid more attention. To the skirt. To the top. To the way every inch of Sammi’s outfit hugged every inch of my body in ways nobody’s body should be hugged. Unless the body in question belongs to a body who’s selling her body. “You sure?”
At least if I sat down, there’d be less of me to ogle. I slipped into the chair across from his. “I’m here to talk to you about Vera Blaine.”
His eyebrows were bushy and met in the middle of his forehead. They dipped. “She ever dance here?”
“You used to date her.”
In spite of the sign in living color right above his head that said it was illegal to light up in a public establishment in the state of Ohio, Steve pulled out a cigarette and a silver lighter. He fired up, took a drag, and blew a stream of smoke. “She’s dead.”
“I know that. That’s why I’m here. I’m trying to figure out who killed her.”
Anybody else would have mentioned that Jefferson Lamar was convicted of the crime and asked why the hell it was any of my business, anyway. Not Ganley. All he said was, “It wasn’t me.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Why else would you be here?” He poured another inch of scotch into his glass, downed it, and plunked the empty glass on the table. “I had an ironclad alibi.”
“Because Vera and me, we hadn’t seen each other in months. She was pissed at me, see. She said I was irresponsible, that I’d never amount to anything.” He looked around and chuckled. “If she could see me now, huh?”
I thought it best not to answer.
“As a matter of fact, though…” He took another drag on his cigarette. “I talked to her that morning. You know, the morning of the day she got killed. Told the cops about it, too. Me and Vera, we were thinking about getting back together again.”
I gave him a level look. “What, so you could beat her up again?”
He stabbed out his cigarette. “Don’t know who’s been telling you that. Ain’t true.”
“Is it true you talked?”
“That morning?” He grinned. “Gospel.”
“And she wanted to see you the next day? She didn’t mention she was coming to Cleveland that evening?”
“Said she was busy. Couldn’t see me that night. That she had a prior commitment.” The way he accentuated the words made me believe he was quoting Vera.
“Do you think she was in town to see a man?”
He sloughed off the thought. “I figured she was seeing somebody else. Otherwise, why would she break up with me? But like I said, we talked. She said she’d had a change of heart. I swear to God, that’s the exact words she used.”
“Did she explain what that meant?”
“Not a clue.” He swirled the ice cubes in his glass. “I figured she was thinking of breaking up with the guy she was seeing. Figured she realized she was missing out on a good thing. So you see…” Ganley added another inch of scotch to his glass and downed it in one gulp. “I didn’t have any reason to kill Vera.”
“Not even because you were jealous of the other guy?”
He shrugged like it was no big deal, and I wondered if he was that nonchalant about the whole thing twenty-five years earlier. “She obviously came to her senses. Too bad she got offed before I got her back in the sack.”
“That’s very romantic.” I hoped he realized I didn’t mean it, but the way his eyes glittered in the reflected glow of the stage lights, it was hard to tell. The dancer made her way around the audience so she could collect tips in her G-string, and Ganley watched her. I had to keep him on task, or he’d start tallying up the total so he’d be sure to get his percentage. “You’re telling me your ironclad alibi is that you loved Vera?”
He swiveled his gaze to me. Or more precisely, to the front of my purple top. When he laughed, it made my skin crawl. “Hell with love! I couldn’t have killed Vera because not three hours after I got off the phone with her, I got nabbed on a drunk and disorderly. I was a little down on my luck at the time and I couldn’t afford bail. So you see, the night Vera was killed, I was in the county jail, locked up good and tight.” He picked up the scotch bottle and offered it in my direction, and when I declined, he poured himself a little more. “Satisfied?” he asked.
I was. In a disappointed sort of way.
I’d already gotten up and turned toward the door when he called after me.
“You’d bring ’em in by the hundreds, honey. If you change your mind about that audition, give me a call.”
In my sweetest voice, I told him I would.
When hell froze over, I joined a convent, or I was dumb enough to step out in public again in another Sammi Santiago original.
According to the coin dealer I went to see the next day, the silver dollar we found at Jefferson Lamar’s grave wasn’t in the greatest shape. It wasn’t especially rare. It wasn’t famous for some weird minting error like an upside-down date or anything. It was worth exactly thirty-seven dollars.
Not exactly a fortune.
Which made it not exactly worth mugging me for.
That pretty much sealed the deal. With that piece of the puzzle in place, I was convinced the coin had nothing to do with the attack outside my apartment building, and since the attack-and what it meant in terms of my investigation-was what I was supposed to be thinking about, I was grateful to eliminate it as a possibility. I was sitting on my couch holding the coin, with my legal pad in my lap. I ripped off page three with its question about the coin, wadded the sheet into a ball, and tossed it onto my coffee table, officially eliminating it as an avenue of investigation.
It wasn’t the most exciting way for a girl to spend a Sunday evening. But believe me when I say that being home alone thinking about clues and murder and a mugging gone (thankfully) wrong wasn’t the worst thing in the world. If I was deep in thought about my investigation, I could avoid answering my phone when it started to ring.
And it was going to start ringing soon.
How did I know?
Well, for one thing, the latest episode of Cemetery Survivor was scheduled to start in about five minutes, and when it did, I knew Ella would call immediately to tell me how cute/smart/hard-working I looked. My two aunts would wait a little longer. But then, they’d be busy throughout the show on a three-way call with my mom, giving her the play-by-play. Once the show was over, I was fair game. For all three of them.
As for me watching the show…
I’d already thrown out the khakis and the emerald green shirt I’d worn to work on Friday. No way I was going to relive the whole ugly experience by watching myself go down in the mud.
So there I sat with time on my hands and questions spinning through my head. I wondered why anyone would bother to bury a pretty ordinary coin at Jefferson Lamar’s grave. And yes, I couldn’t help it. I wondered, too, if the coin meant anything in terms of Vera Blaine’s murder.
Maybe it was the sitting there thinking and the staring thing. Or maybe I was just getting better at the whole Gift that kept on giving. In the empty spot next to me on the couch, I actually saw a little ripple that reminded me of the shiver of air around a candle flame-right before Jefferson Lamar showed up.
That explains why I didn’t screech when he said, “That’s a Morgan silver dollar you’re holding. George T. Morgan was the man who designed the art on it, what we collectors call the obverse and the reverse of the coin. The coins were produced between 1878 and 1904, then again in 1921, and the silver they’re made out of came from the Comstock Lode-you know, that big silver strike out in Nevada in the 1850s.”
The only thing I knew about Nevada was that Las Vegas and Reno were in it. The only thing I knew about the 1850s was that I was glad I didn’t live then, I mean, what with the no running water and the lack of fashion choices and-
None of this seemed relevant, so I simply held out my hand so Lamar could see the coin better. “It’s hardly worth anything. I mean, not like some coins are. So why would anyone bother to bury it next to your grave? Maybe somebody owed you money? Or maybe it’s the silver that means something. Or this whole Compost Lode thing.”
“Comstock.” He pushed his big plastic glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Like I said, I used to collect coins. Plenty of people knew about my hobby. We even had a group that met at Central State. You know, prisoners, a few guards, me. It gave the inmates something to look forward to, and something to read about and study between our meetings. I also belonged to a coin group through the church Helen and I attended. I was president for a couple years. But if anyone from the numismatic community left that coin as a sort of gift, I can’t see why. You’d think they would have chosen something more unusual.”
“Or more valuable.” I tossed the coin in the air and caught it again. “So why take the time and trouble to dig a hole next to your grave and leave it there?”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know.” Lamar sighed. “And I doubt it has anything to do with Vera. How could it?”
He was right, and I was wasting my time on a mystery that wasn’t the mystery I should have been thinking about. With that in mind, I told myself to focus, and reached for the fabric we’d found with the coin so I could wrap it and put it away.
“What’s that?” Lamar pointed at the orange cloth.
I sniffed delicately. “Nasty old fabric. The coin was wrapped in it.”
He scooted forward, and if he could have plucked that piece of cloth from my hands, he would have. Instead, he stopped just short and bent nearer for a better look. “That’s not just old fabric,” he said. “It’s a piece of a Central State prison uniform.”
“You think?” I had never paid any attention to the eight-by-eight square of cloth, and I smoothed it open on the couch between us. If I looked really hard, I could just make out faded black numbers against the orange.
Behind his big-as-boats glasses, Lamar’s eyes gleamed. “It’s a Morgan silver dollar, and Dale Morgan… he was an inmate at Central State. He was in the coin group.”
“So you think he may have left the coin for you?”
Lamar rubbed his chin. “It’s possible, I suppose. Dale was a small-time gambler who got in over his head and got in plenty of trouble because of it. That’s how he ended up at Central State. But inside, he had a good heart. I was certain he could be rehabilitated. Maybe once he got out of prison and turned his life around, he left the coin because he was grateful I had such faith in him.”
“It’s possible.” Thinking, I tossed the coin. “Any idea what happened to this Dale guy?”
He shook his head. “None.”
“Is there a way I could check? I mean, if he wasn’t rehabilitated? If he’s still in the system?”
Lamar didn’t look pleased at the thought. “What about that Inter-thing I’ve heard people talking about? Interweb? Interweave?”
“Internet. Perfect!” I hopped off the couch and grabbed my purse. I don’t have a computer at home, but I do have a key to the administration building at Garden View and the code to get me into the side gate that employees use when they’re leaving late and the main gates are closed.
While I was at it, heading out on a Sunday night gave me the perfect excuse for not answering phone calls. I was busy, I’d tell Ella, my mom, and my aunts when they finally did track me down, and as if the Universe heard me, my phone rang at that exact moment.
It was Ella, but I didn’t answer.
After all, I was busy.
The good news was that thanks to the Internet, Dale Morgan was easy to find.
The bad news was that Jefferson Lamar’s faith in the possibility of his rehabilitation had not been justified.
Morgan was incarcerated at a prison facility not far from Cleveland, but when I called him the next day, he refused to come to the phone.
The good news was that I kept trying, and the third time, he agreed to take my call.
And the bad news?
“I never get any visitors,” Morgan whined. “You want to talk to me, lady, you’re going to have to come here and do it.”
I told him I would.
Then I found a thousand ways to avoid it, and is it any wonder? How could I visit Dale Morgan in prison when I’d never even been out to visit my dad? And how could I do that? Ever? If I did, I’d have to face what he’d done to our family. I’d spent too much time learning the fine art of denial to let that happen.
Fortunately, I had lots of things to keep me from thinking about it. One of those was obsessing about our Cemetery Survivor score. We were ahead by ten points one week, fell back the next, and though I told myself time and again that it didn’t really matter, it really did. I was tired of being short-changed by the Greers of the world. I was tired of being snubbed by the Mrs. Lambs. I wanted to win, and I wanted to win bad.
I also kept busy dealing with the ever-growing groups of fans around the cemetery. And fielding the gifts that kept arriving. This time, it wasn’t flowers. It was a box of cheap candy one day, a bottle of off-brand perfume the next, then a tube of flashy-and all wrong for my skin tone-pink lipstick. If I had the time, I might have been appalled at my secret admirer’s taste. The way it was, I tossed each gift in the nearest cemetery trash container and got on with my life. That included spending countless hours at Monroe Street working on the restoration. We finished ordering headstones from the government for those veterans who were entitled to them. We planted grass. In between hauling and loading, designing flower beds (we left that up to Delmar), and watering, we worked on the art show fundraiser.
I oohed and ahhed at the appropriate times when Sammi showed off the god-awful outfits she was planning to exhibit at the show. I praised the voodoo dolls Absalom crafted (they really were kind of cute), and encouraged Delmar’s drawings. I sat, glassy-eyed and brain-dead, as Crazy Jake bored me with thousands of his photographs. Reggie and I went over ideas for displaying the art, and with Ella’s help, we secured a venue that was sure to knock the socks off Team One.
Our art show was going to be held at the Garfield Memorial at Garden View.
That’s Garfield. Like President James A. Garfield, and don’t worry about not knowing anything about him. I didn’t, either, until I went to work at Garden View. Then I found out that he was the twentieth president of the United States. He was assassinated back in 1881, and he and his wife are entombed in a crypt in a big honkin’ memorial that sits smack in the center of Garden View. A crypt? Oh, that means they aren’t buried; their caskets are out in the open for everyone to see.
Yes, it’s creepy.
The memorial itself is a huge building filled with stained glass, mosaics, and bas-reliefs of the president’s life (no worries about knowing what those are, either, because they’re basically just sculptures that project out of walls). Since the building itself is so elaborate, we decided to keep our exhibit simple. In each quadrant of the rotunda on the first floor of the monument, one of our artists would display whatever he (or she) wanted on the six-foot-tall, four-foot-wide panels Reggie was building. Jake insisted he needed twenty panels for his photos, but we convinced him that minimalism was all the rage, and he finally agreed to stick with five like everyone else.
It was perfect, and enough of a coup to put Team One’s knickers in a twist. The moment our fundraiser was announced on Cemetery Survivor, calls started coming in to the station and tickets to the event were selling like hotcakes. We were going to make a bundle for the Monroe Street volunteers, and make Team One look like losers in the process.
Because I didn’t want to act all superior, I was trying not to think about that on the Saturday afternoon I arrived at Mae Tannager’s Shaker Heights home for Team One’s fundraising tea.
I said home, right? Silly me. I should have said mansion.
The Tannagers live in a monstrosity of a house built in the early 1900s. It has tastefully decorated rooms, high ceilings, and a maid’s quarters on the third floor. I would bet any money they’re still in use. The pink walls, white furniture, and gold bric-a-brac are so not my taste, but I was plenty impressed, anyway. So were my team members.
“Sweet mother of pearl!” Wearing freshly pressed black pants and an ivory-colored silk camp shirt that emphasized the impressive breadth of his shoulders, Absalom stepped inside the front door and whistled below his breath. “This ain’t a house. It’s a-”
“Palace.” In honor of the occasion, Sammi had designed a summery strapless dress out of Wonder Bread bags. When she sighed and looked around in… well, in wonder… the yellow, blue, and red dots jiggled.
Our fans-many of them already inside sipping tea and nibbling tiny sandwiches-cheered our arrival.
“Pepper, you’re looking fabulous, girl!” a lady called to me, and it’s not like I’m vain or anything, but I knew she was right. For our fundraiser, I was planning on pulling out all the stops. For Team One’s, I’d toned things down a bit, but honestly, that didn’t mean I had to look like a frump. After all, I was planning on seeing Bianca that day, so I’d chosen my outfit wisely. I was wearing a taffeta dress decorated with huge orange red poppies with gold centers. The dress had a V neckline, a low back, and a gathered skirt that swished and twirled when I walked.
I twirled to wave to our groupies.
My skirt twirled, too.
“But, Pepper…” There was a group of fans around us, and I didn’t see the person who started talking, but I heard the voice. It belonged to a man, and I saw his hand shoot out of the crowd, reaching in my direction. “Pepper, what about the-”
The hand briefly clutched my arm and, startled, I pulled it out of his grasp. I never had a chance to see who it belonged to. By the time I spun around, the crowd had closed around me, and along with Absalom and Sammi, I was carried toward the back of the house and an elegant sunroom that looked out over a perfectly manicured garden. Out there, more partygoers (was a tea considered a party?) walked the stone paths between topiaries cut into geometrical shapes and ponds where water lilies floated in the afternoon sun. The sunroom itself was glassed-in on three sides and filled with more guests who sat on the wicker furniture and waited in orderly lines at the tables mounded with finger food.
“Now we’re talkin’!” Absalom went for the lox and bagels. Sammi disappeared in the other direction. Delmar and Reggie were over near the punch bowl talking to Mae. Reggie was wearing jeans (they were clean) and a T-shirt that said HUNNIES PLAY ME CLOSE LIKE BUTTER PLAY TOAST. I saw Mae’s eyes glaze when she tried to make sense of the message.
Across the room, Bianca’s eyes met mine, and she looked me over, smiled, and nodded her approval. I hoped Greer got that and a full-length shot of me while she was at it because, of course, she was there, recording the whole, elegant affair for posterity. She’d even chosen a dress for the occasion, though something told me gray polyester wasn’t exactly tea-party fabric.
But I had better things to worry about than Greer’s poor fashion choices. Like everyone else there, I’d paid my twenty bucks to get in, and I planned on getting my money’s worth. I glanced over at a table stacked with designer brownies, and my stomach growled. I was just about to fill a plate when I realized Jefferson Lamar was standing right next to me.
“Don’t do that.” I pressed a hand to my heart. “Can’t you ring a bell or something when you show up, just to let me know you’re here?”
The sarcasm went right over his buzz-cut head. “You know I can’t touch anything, so how could I ring a bell? I had to see you, to find out about Dale Morgan.”
This was not the time or the place to discuss my progress (or lack thereof) on the case. I shushed him with a look, but since nobody but me could hear him anyway, I guess he didn’t think that was any big deal.
“It might be important,” he reminded me.
I looked longingly at the brownies before I turned and walked out of the sunroom. It wasn’t easy finding a private place to talk. The house was as big as a boat, but there were people in the study and people in the dining room and people in the hallways. Never one to let pesky numbers get in the way-of anything-I didn’t try to tally the size of the crowd against the kind of money we’d need to bring in to beat Team One at the fundraising game. Instead, I poked my head into the well-appointed kitchen, saw there was no one there, and ducked inside. Lamar and I had the place to ourselves, and the added bonus of a tray of broken brownies left out on the counter. I grabbed a hunk and popped it in my mouth. Chocolate caramel.
“So…” The warden pinned me with a look. “What did Dale Morgan have to say?”
I swallowed and grabbed a chunk of what looked like chocolate chip. It was, and the chips were dark chocolate.
“You haven’t picked the best place for a little heart-to-heart,” I told him, dodging the question. “You could have shown up someplace else. Anyplace else but here. Like when nobody was around.”
He didn’t apologize or explain. “I’m here now,” he said. “And if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were avoiding the subject.”
“Not avoiding.” I had chocolate on my fingers and the perfect excuse to avoid the subject some more. I washed my hands, then couldn’t find a towel, so I searched through the nearby catering boxes, found a napkin, and dried my hands. “I’ve been busy,” I finally said, tossing the napkin aside.
“You haven’t talked to Morgan.”
“I have talked to him.” That was the absolute truth, so I gave my statement all the oomph it deserved. “By the way, it looks like you were a little off base when you said you thought he could turn his life around. Morgan’s in prison.”
“That’s too bad.” A pained expression crossed Lamar’s face, but he didn’t let his disappointment distract him for long. “You asked him about the silver dollar? About me? About why-”
There was only so long I could keep up the shillyshallying. I crumbled like one of those brownies. “He came to the phone. Once. But he refuses to talk to me about anything. Not until I go and visit him.”
“And you haven’t done it?”
The question was so blunt and well… so darn logical, I had no choice but to be outraged. My shoulders shot back. “Like I said, I’ve been busy.”
“Not too busy to go shopping.” His gaze briefly grazed my taffeta dress. “You said this case was important to you.”
“And it is. You know that. But the coin doesn’t have anything to do with Vera. How can it? It’s just a whatchacallit. Red heron. Or red Herman. Or-”
“Yeah, that’s it.” He’d gotten me riled up, and as every woman alive knows, there’s nothing like the endorphins in chocolate to calm a girl down. I grabbed another hunk of brownie and talked with my mouth full. “Did Morgan have some kind of grudge against you? No, I didn’t think so. And besides, wasn’t he in prison at the time Vera was killed? You said he was a small-time crook, so was he the type who could have arranged a hit from the inside? Because of some sort of vendetta? What, you guys were fighting about the value of wheat pennies?”
I stared at him long and hard, waiting for his answers, and when he didn’t say a thing, I shouted a triumphant, “Aha!” I spun away, then spun around again. It took a while for my skirt to settle down.
“The Morgan thing is a dead end,” I said. “Admit it. Talking to him isn’t going to help us. It isn’t going to get us anywhere. I’d be wasting my time. Which I don’t have much of these days, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“You don’t want to talk to him because you’re afraid to walk into a prison.” Of course I was going to dispute this and remind him that I wasn’t afraid of anything, not even ghosts. But he stopped me like a traffic cop, one hand in the air. “I know you’ve got courage. You don’t need to remind me. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have gone to see Bad Dog. Or Reno Bob. That’s not what I’m talking about, Pepper, and you know it. You don’t want to go to a prison because a prison reminds you of your dad. And that hurts too much.”
I would have argued with this. If I could think of anything to say. Instead, I grabbed another bit of brownie. I didn’t eat it, though. I wasn’t all that hungry anymore.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Lamar stepped closer. “You feel embarrassed. And let down. It’s natural. I saw it so often in the families of the men who were incarcerated. Your father, he betrayed your trust.”
I shrugged. What other response could I give him? While I was at it, I tossed the brownie, washed my hands again, and grabbed a glass for a drink of water. All that chocolate was clogged in my throat.
“I could go with you if that would help.” I was still facing the sink and Lamar’s voice came from behind me.
“To see Dale Morgan?” I turned to him. “Or to see my dad?”
“Either. Both. Though I think we should concentrate on Morgan first. If he knows something valuable-”
He spread his hands. “I’d like to find out.”
Yeah, me, too.
The only question was, how much?
I didn’t have the answer, and I couldn’t pretend I did. Maybe that’s why Lamar felt he had to try a little harder to convince me.
“Maybe there’s something he can tell us about-”
“Maybe.” I’d admit that much.
“You’re the only one who can do it,” he reminded me.
Not technically correct. I wasn’t the only one who could talk to Dale Morgan. I was, however, the only one who could report the conversation back to Jefferson Lamar.
“I’d really appreciate it.” I knew Lamar wasn’t comfortable asking for favors. Which explained the pained expression on his face. “If there was anyone else-”
“There isn’t.” He didn’t need me to remind him, but I did, anyway. “I know I’m the only one. It’s just-”
He swallowed his pride so hard, I saw his Adam’s apple bob. “Pepper, please. I owe her.”
Of course he was talking about Helen, the wife who’d never stopped believing in him, but he never had a chance to elaborate. That’s because Delmar and Reggie raced into the room and Jefferson Lamar disappeared in a poof.
“There you are!” Delmar was red in the face. “We got us a situation.”
I didn’t want to ask, but it was another case of I-didn’t-have-a-choice. “What kind of situation?”
Reggie was breathing hard. “We been running all over this place lookin’ for you. Absalom, he went outside. Jake is somewhere takin’ pictures…” He waved away the thought that Jake would be any help, anyway. “We need you and we need you now.”
He hadn’t mentioned Sammi, and my heart shot into my throat, then slammed down somewhere at the bottom of my just-about-empty stomach.
Delmar pulled in a breath. “Virgil walked in the front door about ten minutes ago. He and Sammi headed somewhere together, only we can’t find ’ em anywhere. And that Greer, she saw him, too. She’s looking all over, practically drooling about the possibility of catching another fight.”
“Shit.” It was the only appropriate response. I headed out of the kitchen with them. “Where have you looked?” I asked.
“Outside. Back in the sunroom and in the library.” Reggie rolled his eyes at the very thought that any house would include a room so grand. “She sure ain’t in the kitchen slicin’ him to little pieces ’cause you would have noticed that.”
I glanced to my right and the winding staircase that led up to the second floor. “Anybody look up there?”
They shook their heads, and I took the steps two at a time.
The second floor of the home was no less impressive than the first. There were doors open on either side of the wide hallway, and when I peeked inside, I saw what might have been referred to in those ritzy home design magazines not as bedrooms, but as boudoirs. Each door led into a private suite that included a dressing room, a bedroom, and a sort of sitting room, and each one was chocked full of white furniture dabbed with gold. There was no sign of Virgil and Sammi in any of them.
And no splatters of blood, either, which in the great scheme of things actually cheered me.
Until I heard sounds from down at the end of the hallway.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Thankful for such an all-purpose word, I raced in the direction of the room at the end of the hall. The door was closed, and here, the sounds were louder than ever. Grunts, groans, moans. Prepared for mayhem, I shoved open the door.
It would have opened all the way if it hadn’t caught on the Wonder Bread dress lying on the floor.
“Oh.” Embarrassed more by my own naïveté than by what I saw happening in the bed on the other side of the room, I stood rooted to the spot, grateful that Sammi and Virgil were so busy doing what they were doing, they didn’t notice me. Desperate to keep it that way, I back-stepped out of the room and clicked the door closed.
Delmar caught up with me. “They in there?”
“Oh, yeah.” I looked over his shoulder. “And Greer-”
“Not to worry.” Reggie came running up the hallway. “Absalom told her he saw Sammi go after Virgil in the garden, so we got time to get them off each other.”
They looked at me in amazement. “Apparently Sammi and Virgil have a love-hate relationship,” I told them. “Right now, they’re in a love phase.”
Jefferson Lamar was right! He was right about me avoiding Dale Morgan. He was right about me doing it because walking into a prison was just too painful. He was right about my dad. Of course he was.
But there was no way I was going to admit it. Not to Lamar. Not to myself.
With that in mind (or more accurately, not in mind, since I refused to think about it), I spent the next few days after the Team One fundraiser trying to prove to myself that I didn’t need to talk to Dale Morgan to help me solve the case.
I went back to the park where I’d met Reno Bob and sat in my car and kept an eye on him, just waiting for him to do something suspicious. He never did.
I went back to Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation and hung around in the check-cashing place next door, as inconspicuous as I could be under the hot pink and orange umbrella I’d borrowed from Ella that rainy afternoon. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to see. Maybe nothing. Maybe I was just trying to pick up on vibes, or impressions, or whatever. But except for that weird mechanical dog in the car waving and waving and waving some more, I didn’t see anything unusual. Or anything helpful, for that matter.
I reexamined the crime scene photos and reread the suspect and witness interviews, and I realized that if I’d been paying more attention the other umpteen times I’d read through the file, I could have saved myself the pleasure of meeting Steve the Strip Man. There was a rust-colored mark on Steve’s interview transcript that showed there had once been a paperclip attached to it, and a free-floating, handwritten note in the file with said rusty paperclip still attached. Eliminated, it said. Incarcerated.
Just like Reno and Bad Dog at the time of Vera’s murder. But not at Central State.
Did it matter? Not if Vera was the intended victim all along, and Jefferson Lamar was just the patsy who got in the way.
With all these questions swirling in my head, and as long as I had the file out, I reread the newspaper articles about the murder. By now, I knew the details by heart. Maybe that’s why, for the first time, I bothered to look at the byline above the stories.
The same name appeared over and over, and it sounded familiar. Just to check, I grabbed the morning’s Plain Dealer and paged through it. Mike Kowalski was still around, all right. That day, there just happened to be an article about him at the top of the Metro section. Apparently, he was some kind of hotshot because he’d just won a national award for investigative reporting. I skimmed the article that appeared below the picture of Kowalski holding some fancy-looking plaque and looking uncomfortable about being in the spotlight. According to his editor, who was liberally quoted in the story, Kowalski had what no other reporter in town did: a line on some incredible (and very secret) sources, spot-on information, and the added bonus of using all that to just about singlehandedly put a local drug kingpin out of business. I was sure the cops would be thrilled to hear it.
Oh yeah, Kowalski was a journalistic superhero, all right, but I called him anyway, and I was all set to give him my song and dance about restoration and research. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. He was a fan of Cemetery Survivor. In fact, he said I was one hot chick and his favorite thing about the program.
Just how desperate was I?
I made a date to meet him for coffee anyway.
Thanks to that photo that ran with the story about him, I recognized Kowalski the moment I walked into a neighborhood bar called Sullivan’s, even though he wasn’t wearing tights and a cape like I expected.
It was just as well. Kowalski was a middle-aged bald guy with a triple chin. He was wearing khakis, a blue oxford-cloth skirt, and a tie that was light blue with yellow polka dots that were supposed to be there and a bunch of food stains that weren’t. Kowalski had beady eyes. They lit like Fourth of July fireworks the moment he caught sight of me.
I did my best not to get grossed out, slid into the booth across from where he sat, and ordered coffee. There was a fat cheeseburger and a double order of fries on the plate in front of him. He added a lake of ketchup and looked me over.
Don’t worry, as soon as I heard that “hot chick” comment, I knew what was going to happen, and I had wisely dressed appropriately: black pants, a fitted, long-sleeved blouse buttoned all the way to the top, and sensible shoes. I was so not sending pick-me-up messages.
He was so not getting it.
“Research, huh?” Kowalski grinned the way older guys always do when they’re trying too hard to impress a younger woman. “You sure you weren’t just looking for an excuse to meet me?”
I’d already decided there was only one sure way to a reporter’s heart, and I kept to my plan. I’d stopped at Garden View that morning and made copies of all the newspaper articles in the police file, and I pulled them out of my purse and plunked them on the Formica table. “I’ve been reading your clippings. You must know more than anyone about the Vera Blaine murder.”
He chewed a couple fries and washed them down with a slurp of coffee. “I’ve been thinking about writing a book about it. Hey, if they make it into a movie, you want to star?”
He wasn’t serious. I wasn’t interested. I twinkled. “That would be terrific. Only it might not happen for a while, right? I mean, it takes a long time to get a movie made. By then, I’ll be too old to play Vera.”
He grabbed his burger and took a bite. Ketchup, mustard, and onions oozed out of the bun and slopped onto his plate, splashed his tie, and added a couple new polka dots. “We can make an exception,” he said, with his mouth full. “For you, honey, I’d do anything.”
I added sweetener to my coffee and took a sip. “Let’s start with your articles.” I spread them out. “You wrote a lot of them. You were really well connected to the case.”
“I was a jerk.” He didn’t sound embarrassed, just sorry. “I was fresh out of J school and I took every assignment my editor offered me. I worked my butt off. But then, I was itching to make a name for myself. I thought the Blaine case would do it for me.”
He set down his burger so he could grab some more fries. “If it did, would I be sitting here right now?”
I thought back to the story in the morning paper, and believe me, I wasn’t trying to score points, just stating the facts when I said, “You’re some kind of god when it comes to investigative reporting. You won-”
“That big award. Yeah, right. Blah, blah, blah.” You’d think a guy who’d been singled out for his excellence would be a little more thrilled. Kowalski waved the whole thing off like it was nothing. “You’re young,” he said. “Someday maybe you’ll understand.” He chuckled, though I didn’t know what was supposed to be so funny. “Or maybe not.”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what we were talking about. My best bet was to keep the conversation on track.
I thumbed through the articles until I found the one I was looking for. “I’m curious,” I told him, “about the desk clerk from the Lake View Motel, this Aaron Burton guy.”
Kowalski darted a look at me that I could read as clearly as I could his lame pick-up line. He was wondering if there was more to me than just a great body and a pretty face.
Was that good or bad?
Rather than worry about it, I stayed focused. I pointed to one of the articles, and because it was upside down to him, I read out loud. “You quoted the desk clerk here… ‘“They was here plenty,” said Aaron Burton, a Lake View employee. “I seen them before, lots of times.” ’ ”
I set down the article, planted my elbows on the table, and gave Kowalski a level look. “Why would a desk clerk at a seedy motel lie about a thing like that?”
Kowalski finished his coffee and waved the waitress over for more. It wasn’t until after she poured and he added three packs of sugar and four of those little creamers that he bothered to answer me. “What makes you think he lied?”
“It’s hard to explain.” True enough, since the only thing I had to go on was the word of a dead guy who swore up and down that his and Vera’s relationship was nothing more than what was appropriate for a boss and his secretary. “I don’t think Lamar and Vera were having an affair.”
Kowalski tipped his chin in the direction of the article I’d just read to him. “That’s not what that guy said, is it? And he was there. You…” He gave me a quick once-over. “At the time, my guess is that you were maybe in kindergarten.”
I smiled because Kowalski’s voice was tight and that beady gaze of his was focused on me in a way that told me he was getting pissed. I didn’t know why, but I knew that if I didn’t keep things on an even keel, he was going to ask me to leave, and I was going to lose out on anything he could tell me. “But here’s the thing… Aaron Burton never testified at Lamar’s trial,” I said, and I knew this because I’d been through the file so many times and double-checked my hunch just in case I’d missed something. “In fact, the cops never even interviewed him after the murder. If his testimony was so crucial to the case-”
“Apparently it wasn’t. They convicted Jefferson Lamar without it.”
“But why? How?” I was amazed that an investigative reporter with Kowalski’s reputation didn’t see what I was seeing. “They couldn’t have used the quotes in your articles to prove anything.”
He had a fry in his hand and he tossed it on his plate, where it landed in a pool of ketchup and added another spot to his tie and one on his shirt. “You think I wasn’t telling the truth?”
“Not at all!” I was losing Kowalski and I was losing him fast. I scrambled to keep my questions coming at the same time I sidestepped around his ego. “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not a professional. I mean, not like you. I’m just a cemetery worker looking for a way to look good on a silly TV show.” I leaned forward. “You want to help me, don’t you?”
He sat back. His gaze flickered from my face to the front of my shirt.
I avoided the temptation to get up and leave.
It was a good thing, because the next second, Kowalski gave in.
“Aaron Burton was a druggie,” he told me. “The reason he never testified was that by the time of the trial, nobody could find him.”
“And you think-”
He pushed away his plate. “He didn’t testify because the cops could never find him. The kid probably OD’d or something. Chances are, he was lying dead somewhere and maybe nobody ever found the body.”
“Seems awfully convenient, don’t you think?”
“Not for Burton. Not if he was dead.” Kowalski hauled himself out of the booth and tossed a twenty on the table. “I’ll get your coffee,” he said. “That way I can go back to the office and tell people I bought lunch for a beautiful woman. They won’t believe me, but what the hell.”
And just like that, he walked out.
I spent a lot of time wondering about my conversation with Mike Kowalski. For one thing, I wondered what I’d gained from our meeting. But mostly, I wondered why Aaron Burton had dropped so conveniently out of sight. If what Jefferson Lamar claimed about his relationship with Vera was true, the desk clerk was lying when he said they’d been to the Lake View together plenty of times. To me, that meant Aaron Burton had been paid to say what he said. Maybe paid so much, he went out and celebrated until he OD’d?
I would never know, of course, but it was an intriguing possibility, and though I don’t know any other private investigators, so I can’t really speak for them, my guess was that there wasn’t a PI anywhere who wouldn’t have been at least a little curious.
If only I had the time to worry about it!
The next week was a whirr of cemetery work, and we tried to keep our chins up and get ready for our team’s fundraiser in spite of the sobering news that Team One had been awarded twenty points for its tea and we were lagging thirty points behind. We worked like dogs, and if it wasn’t for Ella, we would have probably ended up looking like idiots.
I would have been grateful if she just kept to her cheerleader role and didn’t decide to deliver bad news just an hour before our fundraiser was scheduled to start.
“Five thousand dollars? Team One raised more than five thousand dollars?” I paced the wide flagstone veranda outside the Garfield Memorial, stunned by the news Ella had just delivered. “That means they had…” Math is not one of my strong points. I tried to do some quick calculations, but fortunately, I didn’t need to overtax my brain. Ella had the numbers at her fingertips.
She peeked at the papers in the file folder she was carrying. “Two hundred and fifty-six,” she said. “They sold two hundred and fifty-six tickets to the tea.”
“And we’ve sold, like, what?” I tried to remember, and again, the numbers failed me.
But not Ella. “You’ve got one hundred and thirty-five sold as of right now,” she said. “But don’t worry. It doesn’t mean a thing. You know Team One sold tickets to people who never even showed. Like the mayor and a bunch of state senators and-”
I groaned. “It doesn’t matter if they showed or not. They still got the money. And that means if we don’t have a whole bunch of last-minute ticket buyers, they’re going to get that bonus twenty-five points.”
To me, this was something akin to a tragedy. Which didn’t explain why Ella had a wide smile on her face.
“What?” It was the only logical question.
She kept right on smiling. “You care,” she said.
This stopped me. “I care? About-”
“About the restoration. About your team. About Monroe Street. About cemeteries. Oh, Pepper!” Where this idea came from, I wasn’t sure, but she was so jazzed about it, she couldn’t keep from bobbing around like a buoy on a choppy lake. Come to think of it, that night, she looked a little like a buoy, too, in a clingy red pantsuit that showed off her substantial curves and crystal jewelry that glittered in the evening sun.
“I knew this was going to happen,” Ella said, in that motherly voice I’d heard her use on her three daughters. “I knew you were going to be a real mover and shaker in the cemetery business. This proves it. That’s why you want to win. You’re striving for excellence.”
“I want to win,” I told her, “because except for Bianca, who sort of keeps to herself…” And who I wouldn’t dream of insulting, even though she was nowhere near. “The ladies of Team One…” There was no other way to put it without explaining about the stolen coin or about the snarly looks I’d been getting from Team One since they realized I stole it back. I sighed. “The ladies of Team One are royal pains in the butt.”
“You don’t mean that.” She said that in the way people always do when they know you do mean what you say, they just can’t believe you had the nerve to say it. “Admit it, you’re feeling proprietary about your team. You’re feeling good about Cemetery Survivor. You’re taking real pride in your work. It’s because-finally!-you’ve developed a real love for what you’re doing. Don’t be afraid to admit it. You know you can always tell me the truth.”
“OK, I admit it.” It wasn’t true, of course, but I didn’t have time to worry about it, and if it made Ella happy to think I’d morphed into a cemetery geek, that was all that mattered. “I’m glad things are going well with the restoration. But if we don’t get a few more people in here tonight…” Automatically, my gaze traveled to the teal blue doors of the Memorial. They were closed at the moment, and we were waiting for one of the maintenance crew, who said he’d be there any minute, to unlock the building and let us in.
“Not to worry.” Ella patted my arm. “We were here… how late last night? You and your team were a great help. Everyone worked so hard! You know your displays look gorgeous. Everything is going to be just perfect.”
I guess in a weird kind of way, she was right. We’d worked like dogs on making sure the art show looked good, and now, it was time to just sit back (figuratively speaking, of course) and enjoy.
I pulled in a calming breath, picturing it all. As guests walked into the rotunda of the memorial, the first display on the right was Absalom’s. He’d made a bunch of new voodoo dolls specially for the show, and the wild colors of their outfits along with their crazy hairstyles and the flashes of beading and jewelry on them set just the right mood, especially since his display was across from the imposing statue of the president at the center of the memorial.
The next display was Jake’s, a mishmash of photos-some black and white, some in color-of everything from our team working at Monroe Street to the bus Jake took to the cemetery each day. Delmar’s drawings were next, and though I hadn’t said a word to anyone, I thought they were going to get the most attention. The kid had talent, that was for sure. His renderings of what he thought Monroe Street could look like with a lot more work and some big donor contributions were sure to inspire folks to pitch in and join the cause.
Sammi (who was considerably mellower since her last close encounter of the physical kind with Virgil) had insisted on having her stuff in the last display area. She’d made a couple purses for the show (one out of a coffee can and another out of red velvet and gold braid that looked as if it had come from either a church or a bordello). She’d also chosen to display her white vinyl shorts and top outfit, a bikini crocheted from dental floss, and a pair of sneakers that she’d studded with rhinestones and embroidered with Christmas tree tinsel. There was some talk of including the Wonder Bread dress until Sammi discovered that in his eagerness to get it off her, Virgil had left a nasty hole in it. But remember, this was a kinder, gentler Sammi. She actually didn’t seem to mind all that much.
“I know it all looks pretty good,” I said, talking to myself as much as to Ella.
“Considering how creative it all is, I think it’s going to cause quite a sensation.” Ella grinned. “I talked to the art critic from the Plain Dealer this morning. They’re planning to run a whole photo spread.”
“That’s good. It’s all good.” It was. I knew it. That didn’t stop the familiar rat-a-tat of jitters from starting up inside me again. “But now we need more people. Maybe our groupies don’t love us anymore.”
“Maybe your groupies just aren’t people who do things like buy tickets ahead of time. They’ll show up. You know they will. I think they’d pay money just to see Delmar and Reggie. I’ve got to say, that Reggie…” Ella’s face turned a shade of red that matched her pantsuit. “Obviously, he’s not my type. I mean, he’s a criminal after all, and he’s so rough around the edges and so-”
I cut her off with a laugh. “No apologies necessary,” I told her. “Reggie’s a tough guy, and a lot of women are attracted to that type.”
She cringed. “A lot of women, yes. But I’m usually not one of them. I’m level-headed, remember. My goodness! What would my girls say if they knew that when I was watching last week’s episode and saw Reggie stripped down to his denim shorts digging that hole where the new fountain is going to go… and he was all hot, and the sweat outlined every muscle in his body… I felt this rush of heat, you know, and one of the girls-I don’t remember which one-one of the girls asked if I was having hot flashes, and I didn’t want to tell her what it really was, and-”
Fortunately, Tony, the maintenance man, arrived, and we didn’t have any more time to discuss Ella’s bad-boy fantasies. As Tony was walking up the steps to the doors of the monument, Absalom showed up in a silver Hummer. He had Sammi with him, and they got out, waved, and came up the stairs, too.
Remember how I said I was planning on going all-out for the art show? Well, I think I really outdid myself. I was wearing a body-hugging, Empire-style, strapless satin dress with a V bodice that showed off just enough cleavage. The dress was what they called an “ikat tribal print” at the store where I bought it, with streaks of color that ranged from vivid canary yellow to lemon to a nice, clear white that perfectly matched my round-toe sling-backs and my chunky bead necklace and bracelet.
Oh yeah, I looked good, all right, and Absalom acknowledged as much with a tip of his head. He was wearing a three-button tuxedo with a long jacket, and I guess he and Sammi had decided to color-coordinate. His lime green brocade vest was a perfect match for her gown with its see-through lacy midriff and flounced hem. I recognized the pattern and the color. I’d seen a shower curtain just like it at Target.
“We are going to rock tonight!” Absalom slapped me a high five and did the same to Ella. She didn’t know him as well as I did, so she didn’t brace herself for the impact, and she nearly fell over. As a way of apologizing, Absalom wound an arm through hers and escorted her to the door. “After you,” he said to me, and waved me into the building first.
Immediately inside the door to the memorial is an entryway with a winding staircase on the left that leads down to that crypt where the caskets of the president and his missus are on display for everyone to see. On the other side of the entryway is the tiny gift shop/office where the docent who usually mans (or womans) the building waits for visitors. Ahead of us and up two shallow steps was the rotunda, and though I’m not usually impressed with monuments (and never with cemeteries), even I am willing to acknowledge that this was a special place. The entire inside of the building is decorated with mosaic tiles and marble columns. There are even thirteen stained glass windows around the rotunda, each symbolizing one of the original states. In the center of it all is a larger-than-life statue of James A. Garfield in all his presidential splendor. Tony followed us inside and touched a hand to the light switch. Floodlights bathed the statue and hit our displays. I stepped into the rotunda and-
“Oh my gosh!” I stopped cold and Ella slammed into the back of me. After a moment of stunned paralysis, I forced myself to move. I stumbled into the rotunda with Ella, Absalom, and Sammi right behind me.
One by one, they saw what I saw.
“What the-” Absalom’s voice rumbled up to the top of the dome above our heads and echoed back at us.
“Oh, dear,” Ella chirped.
And Sammi? She took one look at her display, screamed, and broke down in tears.
“What’s going on in here?” Reggie and Delmar had just arrived, and they rushed inside and looked to me for answers.
Somehow, I was able to find my voice. “Our art show…” I looked around again, and my heart sank. “Our art show has been vandalized.” I waved a hand toward what had been a beautiful display when last we saw it. Now it was a mess. Absalom’s dolls had been torn down and stomped on. Jake’s photos were ripped to pieces. So were Delmar’s drawings. A couple of Sammi’s outfits had been burned. The ashes of all that was left of them lay in little mounds on the floor.
And all of it…
From my vantage point, I could see all four displays. They had all been scrawled with letters that were distorted and hard to read. They were written in a shade of pink that looked awfully familiar.
I turned every which way, trying to get a sense of the entire message, and when I couldn’t, I violated every rule of Garden View and stepped onto the marble platform that houses the statue of the president. From there, I could see exactly what James A. Garfield could see. Too bad his statue couldn’t talk. Then he might be able to tell us who had scrawled the message that started at Sammi’s display and ended on Absalom’s. It was written in the garish pink lipstick I’d thrown in the Monroe Street trash the moment I found it. It said-
I gulped down the sudden sour taste in my mouth and read the words out loud. “Pepper, don’t ignore me.”
“Oh, dear.” With nervous fingers, Ella twisted her beads.
Sammi was on the floor next to her display, scooping up the ashes and weeping.
Delmar was too stunned to move, and Absalom, he pounded one fist into the open palm of his other hand. I could just about see the steam shooting out of his ears.
That’s how Crazy Jake found us when he shuffled in and snapped some pictures.
“You look pretty, Pepper,” he said. “You’re standing with the president. You’re the first lady.” Jake thought that was pretty funny, but it didn’t take a genius to know he wouldn’t be laughing when he saw that his photos had been destroyed. Maybe Reggie and Delmar realized that; they latched onto Jake and walked him outside before he saw any of the damage.
I stepped back to where my teammates waited. “What does it mean?” I asked Absalom. “Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” he thundered. “But when I find the guy, I’m going to break his freakin’ neck.”
I am not a violent person, but I thought it was a great plan.
“Pepper.” Ella touched a hand to my arm. “Pepper, I know how awful this must be for you. All your hard work.” There were tears in her eyes and she sniffed. “And I know you don’t feel like thinking about anything else right now, but Pepper-”
“The caterers are here!” Delmar called from outside.
“And your guests are going to be right behind them,” Ella reminded me. “Pepper, what are you going to do?”
Honestly, I didn’t know. It was too hard to think about anything except the damage that stared me in the face.
That, and the inescapable reality that pounded through my body and filled my veins with ice water.
I had pissed someone off. Big time.
Call me Little Miss Sunshine, but I had a feeling this was actually good news. It meant I was getting close to finding out who killed Vera Blaine.
Pissed-off murder suspect or not, I had other things to i worry about. Notice I didn’t say bigger things. Just other. Other big things. Like the fact that even as I walked out of the memorial-still in shock and with my head spinning-I saw that our guests were arriving. In return for their twenty-buck donations, they were hoping for something more than just fruit, tiny glasses of wine, and nibblers. At Mae’s, they’d gotten fancy brownies and a taste of the high life. From us-
We needed a Plan B, and we needed one fast.
Lucky for me, I’m quick on my feet, and nothing if not resilient. In the time since I’d become PI to the dead, I’d faced worse problems than a messed up art show, and I’d never let them beat me.
With that in mind, I swallowed down my panic, went through my mental Rolodex for every way I’d ever seen anyone-anywhere-raise money, glanced over my team, and reminded myself how fine they all looked that evening, and-
Yes, I am a genius. Which is why when I blurted out my plan to Ella, I fully expected her to jump up and down with joy. Instead, she stared at me a little slack-jawed for a moment, before she said, “I’m not sure we can do that.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was still trying to persuade her with the whole Pepper-is-brilliant argument. She was still not so sure. We were back out on the flagstone veranda, and it was Ella’s turn to pace. She was also wringing her hands. For the record, I was no less nervous, I just wasn’t going to let it show.
I patted her shoulder. “Not to worry. It’s not like we’re desecrating the president or anything. We’re not inside the memorial.”
“No…” Her gaze drifted toward the steps and the wide expanse of lawn that surrounds the building. Lucky for us, it was a beautiful summer evening, blue skies, warm without being sticky. Sunlight dappled the grass and added golden highlights to the headstones and mausoleums that surrounded the memorial. There was a pleasant breeze out of the north. It was perfect. Even if we did make the caterers scamper to find a place they could put the food and our guests did look a little perplexed as to why they were being kept outside. “But if the cemetery trustees find out…” Ella squeaked.
“By the time they find out, it will all be over,” I said, and I wondered just how prophetic I was being. All over? Was I talking about our fundraising event? Or my job at Garden View Cemetery?
I knew that Bianca would be there that night, and I reminded myself that I looked like I just stepped out of the display window at La Mode, and that, oh, by the way, I’d never much liked working in a cemetery, anyway.
Which meant I didn’t have anything to lose.
Except the Cemetery Survivor contest, of course.
And there was no way I was going to let that happen.
“It’s going to be fine.” It was like the hundredth time I’d said this since I made up my mind about how we were going to keep people entertained now that our art show was ruined. “I asked them. You saw me go over and ask them,” I reminded her with a look over to where Absalom, Sammi, Reggie, Delmar, and Crazy Jake waited. “My team’s all for it, and it’s going to bring in a boatload of donations. How can anybody fault us for that? It’s what we’re here for, right? We’re supposed to be raising money to give to the Monroe Street Foundation. No way our trustees can complain when that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we’re doing it with class and style! And this is going to give the restoration project even more publicity, and Garden View, too. It’s perfect, Ella. We should have thought of it sooner. We’re going to create a sensation!”
“Yeah, a sensation.” Ella was paler than any ghost I’d ever met, and her voice was no more than a terrified whisper. When a tuxedoed waiter passed carrying a tray of glasses filled with wine, she grabbed one and downed it. Her cheeks flushed with a color that matched her outfit. Her shoulders shot back. “Let’s do it,” she said.
And before I could talk myself out of what I’d already talked myself into, I hurried to stand on the steps right outside the main doors into the memorial.
I figured there was no need for a lengthy introduction or an explanation of any kind. How do you explain that some whacko with a cheap tube of lipstick ruined days and days of work? And why would I want to give the nut job that kind of spotlight, anyway? Of course, that didn’t stop my mind from racing or my gaze from wandering the crowd.
Who had engineered the destruction?
Maybe I needed to start being careful about what I wished for. As I scanned the crowd, my heart bumped to a stop. The used car dealer owner, Bad Dog Raphael, was in the front row, looking as suave as ever in a tux. He lifted his wineglass, and the smile he shot in my direction glistened like the evening light.
I was too nervous to do more than acknowledge him with a tip of my head. And pretty surprised when I realized the reporter Mike Kowalski was standing right behind him. He looked me over like a starving man in line at the local Ponderosa.
My stomach was already doing flip-flops, so I didn’t want to think about what he was obviously thinking about. I looked away-and saw Reno Bob Oates on the other side of the crowd. When his eyes met mine, they narrowed. Reno Bob bit through the finger sandwich he was holding.
Never one to back down from a plan I was convinced was a good one, I pasted a smile on my face and refused to look around further. The crowd quieted and all eyes turned to me.
I waved. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Team Two’s fundraiser. We’ve had a little change of plans. So gather around, grab a glass of wine, and I hope you brought your checkbooks. We’re about to begin…” I paused for a moment to add to the drama, “the first ever Cemetery Survivor bachelor auction!”
That one moment of total and complete shocked silence, and all those opened mouths made me wonder if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life. I was about to stammer an apology and tell them all it was a joke when Reggie sauntered up the stairs to stand next to me.
And guess what? The ladies in the crowd went wild.
Three cheers for Reggie. He’d begged, borrowed, or stole (I didn’t want to think which) a black suit for the night, and between that and the tie with a pit bull painted on it (an exact match to the tattoo on his forehead), he looked like a Wall Street broker gone way bad. As I’d said to Ella, there were a lot of women who liked that sort of thing. They proved it, too. Absalom stepped front and center to take over the proceedings, gave the crowd a rundown of the ground rules we’d made up on the fly (like making it very clear how the winner was only paying for each team member as an escort for the rest of the evening), and the bidding started.
“One hundred dollars!” A woman at the back of the crowd called.
“One-fifty,” said another.
“Two hundred dollars!” The voice was familiar, and no wonder; Ella jumped up and down, waving her checkbook like there was no tomorrow.
All for a good cause, I reminded myself, and stepped to the side of the building so that I could grab a glass of wine in peace.
So much for that plan; I wasn’t exactly surprised to find Jefferson Lamar there waiting for me.
“You call this conducting an investigation?” I wasn’t imaging it, his nose really was in the air when he looked toward the front of the building where Reggie was having the time of his life. Reggie strutted and posed. He paraded and pouted. And when he stripped off his suit jacket and tossed it over one shoulder, the bidding shot from three hundred to four-fifty in a heartbeat. “This is tomfoolery!”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s not like I had a lot of time to come up with a Plan B. Besides, nobody seems to mind.” I listened as the bidding hit seven hundred dollars.
“Going once!” Absalom called. “Going twice. Gone!”
Was I surprised when I saw Ella dash out of the crowd and grab Reggie’s hand?
“I can’t spend all my time on your case,” I said, turning back to Lamar. “I’ve got a real job to do, and real people who are going to ask questions if I don’t do it.”
“I know. I know.” It must have been the night for pacing. He marched along the perimeter of the veranda and back again. “You’ve had time, though. You haven’t even gone to see Dale Morgan yet.”
“I worked on the art show twenty-four, seven.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “I can’t do two things at once.”
“You have to concentrate. What about the file you have? The evidence? The newspaper articles?”
This was one place I could use a little one-upmanship, and I didn’t hesitate. “As a matter of fact, I talked to Mike Kowalski. You must remember him. He interviewed you like a million times.”
Lamar remembered, all right. I could tell because his brow furrowed. “Scandalous lies. Yellow journalism.”
“The guy’s like a hero or something,” I said. “He’s got a great reputation, and he wins all kinds of awards. Not the kind of person who would make stuff up. Only…”
Lamar leaned nearer. “Only…?”
“Only something about him gives me the creeps. I mean, something more than just that he’s a creepy old guy, and that’s creepy enough. But he’s…” I shrugged. “I dunno. For a guy who’s supposed to be the second coming of Geraldo, he’s a big zero.” I thought about the way Kowalski’s stomach sagged over the waistband of his khakis. “And I do mean big.”
“And Kowalski, he says-”
“Nothing new, so nothing you’re going to want to hear.” Lamar didn’t take the hint. He stood there waiting for me to say more, and I figured since he apparently wasn’t careful about what he wished for, either, he was about to get what he deserved.
“Kowalski says exactly what he said back then: the desk clerk swears you and Vera were at the Lake View plenty of times.”
Lamar’s cheeks got dusky. “I remember that from the newspaper. It’s preposterous, of course. I told the police that. Why would the man lie?”
“Exactly what I want to know. Only, the thing is…” A roar went up from the crowd and new commotion started when Sammi’s auction was concluded. I don’t think I was imagining it when I saw Virgil race up the steps to claim her. After the fights that had been so prominently featured on Cemetery Survivor, nobody else had the nerve to do much bidding. He got her for a song: three hundred bucks. “The desk clerk never talked to the cops. He never testified. He seems to have conveniently disappeared.”
“And that means…?”
“The hell if I know!” Crazy Jake’s auction was next, and I could see he was having the time of his life taking pictures of the crowd, even if he did go for only seventy-five dollars and the woman who won him looked enough like him for me to figure out it must have been his mother and she knew nobody else was going to bid.
Delmar did a little better and brought in another eight hundred.
I did some quick calculations and hoped my math was right. We were still behind Team One’s five thousand one hundred and twenty dollar total. I hoped Absalom had fans.
Rather than obsess, I concentrated on the case. “I’d like to know which of them was lying,” I said, and big points for Lamar, he was a quick study.
“You think Kowalski made up the quotes from the kid? But why?” He must have seen Kowalski earlier, just like I had, because he scanned the crowd. I looked that way, too, and saw that if they weren’t eagerly participating in the auction, at least most of our guests looked like they were having fun. I didn’t see Reno Bob, but Kowalski was over at the food table, loading a plate. Was it a coincidence that Bad Dog was standing right behind him in line?
I watched them chat and wished I had super powers for super hearing. “You could just like, pop up over there, couldn’t you?” I asked Lamar. “I’d love to know what they’re talking about.”
“Too crowded. Not enough space.” He shook his head. “If I get close enough to hear them, someone will get frozen solid.”
I might have been willing to take the chance if Bianca wasn’t in line, too. And if I didn’t hear a voice calling my name from out in front.
“What about Pepper?” It was Absalom. Apparently, the bidding for him was over, and I hadn’t been listening to hear how much he’d gone for. When he didn’t get enough of a reaction from the crowd, he boomed the question again. “What about Pepper? Let’s get her out here!”
The crowd cheered and my stomach went cold. “Oh, no!” The last person who cared was Jefferson Lamar, but he was the only one I could complain to. “I told them I wasn’t going to participate. I told them, no auction for me.”
“It’s for a good cause,” he said, and I guess he didn’t want to hear what I was going to say about that, because he winked out.
I thought about climbing the wall that surrounded the veranda, scaling down the side of the monument, and getting out of there, and I might have done it, too, if Absalom hadn’t come around to the side of the building and latched onto my hand. When he took me out front, the cheers intensified.
“She’s a mighty fine woman,” Absalom said, holding me at arm’s length so the crowd could get a good look. “What do I hear for the captain of our team, Pepper Martin?”
“Fifty dollars!” The voice was small and tentative, and one I didn’t recognize, a man’s. It came from the back of the crowd, but though I was standing on higher ground, I couldn’t see him. Of course, that wasn’t going to stop me from sending a scathing look in that direction. Fifty bucks? For me? Please!
Not to worry, the auction got more lively from there. “One hundred!” someone called.
“Two hundred,” another countered.
“Six hundred.” It was the first I realized that Bad Dog had returned to the front of the crowd. He grinned when he called out his bid.
I reminded myself the whole thing was in good fun.
“Seven hundred.” This from Mike Kowalski.
I shot a panicked look at Absalom, but he was having too much fun to notice. He looked over the crowd. “Only seven hundred dollars for this gorgeous lady? How about eight?”
“One thousand dollars,” Bad Dog yelled.
Yeah, it was only for the rest of the evening. Yeah, it was so the cemetery restoration could be completed. No, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend my evening with ex-con Bad Dog Raphael. He was better looking than Kowalski, that was for sure. But he was one of my suspects, remember. Traditionally, guys who arrange hits on girls wearing jelly bracelets do not make good dates.
I had my hands at my sides, and I was sending Absalom little signals to keep the bidding going when a voice called out from the back of the crowd. “Three thousand!” it said.
Oh yeah, Quinn knew how to make a dramatic entrance, all right. He looked like a god in a navy suit, a white shirt, and a plum silk tie with swirls of navy in it, and he strode through that crowd like he owned the place. When he sauntered up the steps, he had a check all written out and in his hands. He handed it to Absalom.
It would take more than grand romantic gestures to make me cave, but I couldn’t control a smile, and I guess that told Absalom all he needed to know. “Going once, going twice, gone!” He sped through the technicalities, grabbed my hand, and put it in Quinn’s, who promptly shot me a grin as hot as the deepest fires of hell.
“You’re mine for the night,” he said.
I smiled politely. “I’m surprised to see you. It’s been a while.”
“Too long.” He led me down the steps. Now that the auction was over, our guests were scattering to chat and stand in line for food. I guess Quinn figured being the big spender got him special privileges. He went right to the front of the line, got a glass of wine, and handed it to me. “Would you believe it if I told you I missed you?”
I wanted to. But then, I saw the curt nod Quinn gave Ella when she walked by. I clutched my wine in both hands. “Ella called you. How else would you know about the fundraiser?”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t missed an episode of Cemetery Survivor.” There was a twinkle in his eyes that would have been sexy if it wasn’t so darned annoying. “I’m a huge fan. I loved the episode where you and Sammi were arguing about lord knows what. I’m not sure you two did, either. And I especially liked it that day you went down in the mud. If I’d known you were into mud wrestling, I would have-”
Quinn leaned nearer, all slick smiles and smelling like Flavio. He was too hot to handle, at least in public. In an effort to stay sensible and stay off Greer’s radar except to smile, wave, and look good, I stepped away from the table and out onto the lawn where the crowd wasn’t quite as heavy and there was more room to keep a safe distance. “Ella told you what happened to the art show, didn’t she?”
“Which doesn’t mean I didn’t miss you.”
“Which you could have proven like a hundred times if you’d just picked up the phone and called.”
“Been busy.” He sipped his own glass of wine.
“Been annoyed.” I smiled sweetly.
“It’s always good to get all that messy stuff out of the way right up front.” He offered me his arm, and I took it. “I suppose you’ve got to stick around, right? Meet and greet, that sort of thing?”
“I do.” We did a turn around the lawn, and I smiled and nodded to the fans around us. “I suppose you want to know more about what happened to our art show.”
“You realize this is serious, don’t you? Ella says she can’t imagine who could have done it. But she’s worried. She says she thinks you might have a stalker and-”
“I knew that’s why you were here.” I couldn’t help it; disappointment seeped into my every word. “Or does your showing up have something to do with Bad Dog Raphael being here?”
He looked over his shoulder, found Raphael in the crowd, and took a careful look. “It does seem odd. One day, you’re asking way too many questions about him, the next, here he is, live and in person.”
“Maybe he’s a Cemetery Survivor fan, just like you.”
“Maybe.” In one smooth maneuver, Quinn dropped my arm and stepped in front of me so that we were face-to-face. His voice dipped. So did his gaze. When he was done looking me over, he looked me in the eye. “Maybe I wanted to see you. Maybe I really did miss you.”
It was (almost) a remarkably straightforward comment from a man who was usually anything but. Is it any wonder I wasn’t willing to accept it at face value?
“You wanted to know more about the gifts I’ve been finding at the cemetery.” I could have kicked myself for letting that slip.
Especially when Quinn’s eyes lit. Once a cop, always a cop, even at a fundraiser. I could practically see him turn from mildly interested to plenty worried. “Gifts? Ella didn’t tell me.”
“Ella doesn’t know.”
“You’re being careful?”
I laughed. “I’m carrying a voodoo doll with me everywhere I go. Does that count?”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Neither am I.” My purse was inside the memorial so I couldn’t prove it by getting the doll for him to see. “I didn’t realize I had a problem until tonight. I’ll be careful.”
“Good.” He nodded. “Look, if you’re not busy later…”
We were on surer footing now. Or at least we would have been if I knew where I stood with Quinn. “I hope you don’t think that’s what you bid on,” I said.
He was not so easily put off. “Three thousand dollars is a lot of money,” he reminded me.
“And I’m worth every penny.”
Quinn backed away. “I bet you have people you’re supposed to be talking to.”
“And you? What are you going to do?”
He pursed his lips. “Oh, I think I’ll wander over and chat up Bad Dog. And while I’m at it, I might as well talk to some people and see what I can find out about the vandalism inside the memorial.” He looked in the direction of the long drive that loops around that part of the cemetery. “My car’s parked over there. I’ll meet you later.”
It wasn’t a question.
But then, he didn’t need an answer.
That night gave me a better appreciation for why Sammi had been so mellow ever since Virgil was back in the picture. Not that I knew the details about what happened between Sammi and Virgil. Believe me, the almost-too-up-close-and-personal encounter I’d had with their love life at Team One’s tea was as close as I ever wanted to get. But I did know that by the time Quinn left my apartment the next morning, things were looking up.
I was in a good mood, and it sure didn’t hurt that we’d raised a whole bunch of money at our auction. Five thousand six hundred and twenty-five dollars to be exact, enough for us to earn the twenty-five bonus points we so desperately needed. Who said sex doesn’t sell better than tea?
I also heard from Ella that the Garden View trustees weren’t as mad about the auction as they were thrilled by the publicity we’d garnered at the event, including a front-page picture (Reggie front and center with Ella racing up to claim him) in the next day’s Plain Dealer. Greer got some terrific footage, too. She even admitted it. With any luck, the next episode of Cemetery Survivor would show me and my teammates looking like the soon-to-be winners I knew we were.
The best part of the whole thing (well, not counting the Quinn part of the equation) was that plowing our way through the art show disaster and pulling off the auction made my team more of a team than ever. Suddenly, we were working together seamlessly, and by the middle of the next week, we finished the leveling and grass planting, got a trickling fountain up and going just as the judges came by for a look-see, and convinced the city that the tree-lined lane into our section needed re-paving.
Life was good. Quinn and I planned to see each other on both the following Friday and Saturday, and with all that taken care of, I was in a good place to take time for some serious sleuthing.
Did that mean I was going to see Dale Morgan, the guy in prison who might be able to tell me something about the coin buried at Lamar’s grave?
Not a chance! Instead I decided it was time to pay a visit to the scene of the crime.
The next Thursday, I had plans to get out of Monroe Street early, but we ran into a problem with a broken water line. If we let the water run all night, it would ruin our newly planted grass, so though I volunteered to stay there on my own, my team waited with me for the Water Department to arrive. By the time they took care of the leak, it was nearly seven, and that was later than I’d hoped to get started. But it was summer, and that meant it would stay light until around nine. If I was quick, I could use the time wisely. I left the cemetery and got onto the freeway that snakes along Cleveland’s water-front, headed for the Lake View Motel.
I’m an upper-middle class suburban girl, born and bred, but even I know there are parts of the city that used to be decent and have now been swallowed whole by poverty and decay. That’s where I was headed. Sure enough, when I followed my MapQuest directions to the Lake View, I found myself in a part of town where I was surrounded by empty lots, boarded-up houses, and small factories that looked like they had been locked and shuttered before I was born.
The Lake View stood on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The view alone was worth a million bucks: blue water, puffy clouds, a couple sailboats. They say that from some places on the lake’s shoreline, you can actually see all the way to Canada, but here in Cleveland, the only thing visible when you look to the north is water. At that time of the evening, the sun was just slipping in the western sky, and its blinding light added stripes the color of my hair to the water.
Too bad that sunshine wasn’t blinding enough to block out the ugliness that was all that was left of the vacant motel.
I slowed the car and pulled into the pocked parking lot. The Lake View was a long, low building that extended out like an L from a center door with the faded words FRONT DESK over it. Once upon a time, it had been painted white with green trim. These days, the paint was faded, chipped, and cracked. Most of the picture windows that looked out at the parking lot were boarded. A few of the boards were missing, and in this light, the gaping holes left by broken windows looked like eye sockets.
“And you are being way too dramatic.” I reminded myself of this as I parked near the center of the building and grabbed the file I’d gotten from Quinn. According to the photos in the file, Vera had been killed in room 12. I glanced around to get the lay of the land, and then headed off to my left.
The door to room 12 was either locked or rusted shut, but fortunately, it was one of the rooms that had a broken window and only a few scrappy pieces of board covering the hole. Luckier still, the window frame was no more than a foot up from the brick base of the building. Careful to keep clear of the sharp teeth of glass along the lower edge of the window, I stepped through the hole and into the room where, twenty-five years earlier, Vera Blaine had been beaten and shot to death.
I suppose since I have this Gift and all, I should be sensitive to vibes, or atmosphere, or something. Not so. The only vibe I got from room 12 of the Lake View Motel was the I-can’t-wait-to-get-this-over-with-so-I-can-get-out-of-here vibe. And that had nothing to do with the paranormal and everything to do with the place being rundown, dirty, and just plain disgusting.
The broken window and missing boards let in enough light for me to get a look around. There was no furniture and the rug was gone, too. The cement floor was pitted and wet in spots. If I squinted really hard and used my imagination, I could make out what must have once been beige paint on the walls. It was splotchy and scrawled with graffiti. Apparently, the neighborhood kids knew a good place to hang out and get high when they saw one. There were more than a few empty beer cans on the floor, scraps of a ratty blanket, and a pile of charred sticks that showed someone had once tried to light a fire in the center of the room.
There was no sign of that someone now, thank goodness, and just to make sure there were no critters lurking to surprise me, either, I clapped my hands and stomped my feet. No scurrying, no squeaks, no squeals. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’d remembered to bring a flashlight, and I dug it out of my purse and flicked it on, training its light on the crime scene photo I plucked out of the file.
I stood just inside the door where the photographer had been standing when he took the picture that showed the entire room, comparing the photo to the empty space in front of me. It would have been easier if the light was better.
The bathroom door was directly in front of me, and it was closed. If there was a window in there-and if it wasn’t boarded-I knew I could count on a little more light. As it turned out, there was a window that was maybe two feet square, high up on the wall. It was broken but not boarded up. Perfect, except that as soon as I pushed the door open, it swung shut again.
Frustrated, I went back out into the bedroom and looked for something I could use to prop the door. I grabbed one of the sticks from the almost-fire, wedged it between the door and the jamb and when the door stayed open, just like I wanted it to, I congratulated myself. “Good work, Pepper,” I murmured, and while I was in there, I looked around.
The bathroom was no more spectacular than the rest of the place. The toilet and sink were gone and the bathtub was filled with debris. The floor-or at least the parts of it that hadn’t been worn away by time-was black and white linoleum, the wallpaper was kitschy. It was dotted with pink flamingoes and green palm trees, and even though they were faded, they looked too playful and tropical to be part of the decay.
In spite of myself, I wondered what Vera had thought about those flamingoes.
And I shivered.
It was better to concentrate on the facts than it was to get mired in emotional details, and just so I wouldn’t forget it, I stepped back into the other room, all set to get to work.
I would have done, too-if I hadn’t heard someone walking right outside the door.
I hauled in a breath and stood rooted to the spot, watching as a shadow slipped under the door. I held my breath when the doorknob turned, and I thought about darting back into the bathroom and slamming the door, but one look over my shoulder at that window-and one thought about how small and how high up on the wall it was-made me change my mind. If I needed a quick exit, I wouldn’t find it in that direction.
The picture window was my best bet, and with that in mind, I grabbed another one of the sticks from the fire, darted over to stand behind the door, and held my ground.
“Pepper?” A voice from outside whispered my name, but this did not reassure me in the least. I reminded myself that the mugger who’d nearly sliced open my windpipe knew where I lived. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think he might also know my name.
I clutched the branch tighter.
“Pepper?” The voice called to me again, and a head and shoulders popped through the window. “Are you-”
I’d already shot forward, ready to administer a mighty blow, so it was a good thing I stopped myself just as I was about to bring the branch down on Absalom’s head.
“What you doing, woman?” He shot straight back, one hand clutched to his heart. “You nearly scared me to death!”
I leaned forward for a better look, just in case my eyes were playing tricks on me. It was the first I realized Crazy Jake, Sammi, Delmar, and Reggie were with him. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Maybe we should ask you the same question.” Without further explanation, Absalom stepped over the windowsill into the room. Sammi was so short, it was clear she would do herself some serious damage if she attempted the move on her own, so Absalom lifted her up and hoisted her inside. The rest of my team followed.
Always the spokesman, Absalom shook his head. “Don’t seem like the kind of place a woman like you should be hanging out. What are you up to?”
It seemed only fair to counter with a question of my own. “How did you find me? And why would you follow me in the first place?”
Like he was amazed that I was being so dense, Absalom shook his head. “You been sneakin’ around for weeks, and we all had a talk about it.” Our fellow teammates acknowledged that he was right by nodding. “You’re going to get yourself in some trouble if you’re not careful. Can’t guarantee that voodoo doll I gave you is going to guard against every evil.” A shiver snaked across his massive shoulders. “Especially in a place like this.”
“Nothing here you should even care about.” This came from Reggie, who actually looked pretty much at home in the dilapidated mess.
“Unless you’re up to something…” Absalom dragged out the last word, giving me every opportunity to jump right in.
I might have been able to hold out when it came to Reggie. And I sure could have ignored Crazy Jake (who wasn’t paying all that much attention anyway, since he was kicking around the room and snapping pictures). I could have debated the wisdom of hanging around the Lake View with Absalom. Or made up some bullshit story to satisfy Sammi and Delmar.
But I couldn’t resist them all.
I gave in with as much good grace as I could muster. “I’m investigating a murder,” I said.
“Cool!” Sammi shot forward. “Somebody got murdered? Here?”
“Yeah, twenty-five years ago.”
“And you’re looking into it…” Absalom’s expression was as thoughtful as his voice. “Why?”
Honest to gosh, I thought about telling them the truth. For all I knew, my teammates just might believe me when I told them about the dead who visited and the cases I’d taken on their behalfs.
I decided to play my cards close to my chest.
“You’ve seen Jefferson Lamar’s grave,” I said.
Delmar stepped forward. “Where we found that coin.”
“That’s right. He’s the guy who was convicted of murdering Vera.”
“The girl who died in this room.”
Sammi had made the comment, and I nodded toward her. “Lamar’s wife doesn’t think he did it.”
“And you’re trying to prove it?” Absalom asked.
I pulled back my shoulders. “Believe it or not, I’ve done this sort of thing before. I mean, I’m not a professional or anything, but I’m pretty good at it.”
“I don’t doubt that for one minute.” Absalom said this in a way that made me think I’d jumped the gun when it came to getting all defensive. “But why here?”
“I’ve got the original police file from the murder,” I explained, “and the crime scene photos. I thought if I came here and looked around-”
“You’d get a sense of the place, and of everything that happened here. Yeah, I get that.” Absalom folded his arms over his chest. “So why didn’t you ask us to help in the first place?”
I shrugged. It wasn’t exactly an answer, but then, I wasn’t exactly sure what to say. “I didn’t want to take away your free time. I didn’t want to involve you in something you might think is stupid. I didn’t want you to think I was some sort of nut job, going around trying to prove something when the police weren’t even able to prove it back when it happened. I didn’t want-”
“Us to be in any danger?” A comment that insightful coming from Sammi was the verbal equivalent of her walking into work wearing a plaid jumper and loafers. Just like an outfit like that would have done, it got my attention.
“You have better things to do than hang around with me when we’re not working,” I said, “looking for clues to a murder that happened so long ago, none of us even remember it.”
Absalom pursed his lips. “Think so?” He glanced at his fellow teammates. “Maybe we’ve let our team captain have her way long enough. Maybe it’s time our team became a democracy. What do you say? Let’s take a vote. All those in favor of letting Pepper investigate on her own in places like this, which don’t look too savory to me, raise your hand.”
Not a single hand went up.
“And all those in favor of helping her out?”
Every hand shot up, even Jake’s.
I am not by nature an emotional person, but my eyes misted and my throat closed over a lump.
“Don’t sweat it, Pepper.” Sammi slapped me on the back. “You don’t have to thank us. This is our way of thanking you.” I knew when she realized she’d said more than she meant because her cheeks got dusky. Her voice dropped. “I mean, you could’a had me tossed from the team. You know, that first time Virgil showed up and I whooped his butt.”
I laughed, because it wasn’t funny, but it was a way to make Sammi feel less embarrassed. “What? And miss all the other fights?”
Absalom was a man of business. He knew a girly bonding moment when he saw one, and he wasn’t about to let it get out of control. If it did, he knew Sammi and I would be sitting down, having a heart-to-heart, and comparing fashion pointers and love lives before another five minutes were up.
“Good, then that’s settled.” He grinned. “We got us a murder to solve. Let’s get started.”
“Jake, you’re the dresser. You stand over there.” I J pointed, and since Jake was crazy but not uncooperative, he moved to stand in the spot where the crime scene photos showed the dresser. “Delmar, you’re the mirror. The dresser looks like it was bumped away from its usual place, probably while Vera was trying to defend herself. So you want to stand a couple feet away from Jake. Reggie…” I consulted the photo again, “you’re over there, you’re the bed.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Sammi, you can either be the smashed lamp or-”
“Oh, come on. Let me be the murdered chick. Please!” Sammi scampered over to where I was standing and stood on her tiptoes so she could see over my shoulder and look at the photograph. There’s no way on earth I would have asked her-or anybody else-to make full-body contact with the floor, but hey, Sammi was nothing if not spunky. She was really getting into this crime scene reenactment, and she laid down in the spot where the photo showed Vera’s body.
“You want me to be the murderer?” Absalom asked.
“I dunno.” I looked at it all and at the way my teammates looked to me for answers-except for Sammi, who was staring up at the ceiling just the way Vera was in the photo-and my shoulders slumped. “I’m not sure this is getting us anywhere.”
“Sure it is. It must be.” Absalom stripped the photo out of my hands. “It gives us a better idea of where things were, how the room was set up.”
“But not who killed Vera.” I shook my head in an effort to clear it. It didn’t work. I was still as baffled as ever. “She was here to meet somebody,” I told them all because, of course, they didn’t know that I had figured out this part of the story. “She arrived wearing her office clothes, but she brought a trampy sort of outfit with her, and-”
“Oh, was it really cool?” Sammi shot up. “Are there pictures? I’ll make a copy of it. Then we can come back and I can dress just like her, and-”
“It’s not going to make a difference what you wear,” I pointed out. “These pictures don’t really matter. None of them. All that matters is what happened before the pictures were taken. And we can’t know that.”
“Hey, maybe we need to get a psychic in here.” The idea came from Reggie, who was pretty proud of himself for thinking of it. “You know, like those ones on TV. We could communicate with the dead girl. She’d tell us what happened.”
I was in no mood to point out that I’d already tried this. And that it hadn’t worked.
Frustrated by the whole experience and wondering what I thought I’d accomplish by coming to the Lake View in the first place, I paced the room, from the window to the door and back again. In the great scheme of things, I guess that was my big mistake.
It meant I was standing right in front of the window when the first shots were fired.
Remember what I said about the disgusting floor? Right about then, I didn’t care.
I hit the cement face-first, and though I screamed to my teammates to do the same, I really didn’t have to. When I got up the nerve to lift my head just long enough to glance around, I saw that they were all on the floor, too.
We stayed that way for I don’t know how long, waiting for another volley of shots that didn’t come. The only sound in the room was our rough breathing. That, and the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears.
I swallowed hard. “Everybody OK?”
Fortunately, everybody was.
Still on his stomach, Absalom shimmied over. “You never said nothin’ about people tryin’ to kill you.”
“Like I knew somebody was going to start taking pot-shots at me?” I half-crawled, half-rolled in the other direction, and when I was out of range of the window, I sat up and dug around in my purse for my cell phone so I could call the cops. “It’s not like it happens every day,” I said, even though it does happen more often than I like. “I told you I didn’t want to involve any of you. I told you it might be dangerous. I’m sorry.”
“Not lookin’ for a freakin’ apology.” Absalom sat up, too. “Lookin’ to know what you got yourself into.”
I didn’t have the answer, but as it turns out, it didn’t matter. Another round of gunfire erupted, and before I had a chance to dial 911, I fell flat again. My phone slipped out of my hand and skittered across the floor.
A bullet slammed into the cement not ten inches from it, and a spray of tiny cement pieces spewed into the air. Another bullet whizzed past my ear. I knew it wouldn’t do any good, but hey, self-preservation instincts aren’t always logical; I rolled into a ball and covered my head.
And that’s how we all waited. One minute. Two. Three. With each second that passed, I was convinced the shooter was going to spring through the window and finish us off. When nobody did, I took the chance of unfurling and taking a careful look around. “Maybe he’s gone,” I whispered.
“Maybe.” Absalom rocked to his knees and crawled to the window. He was a big target and he knew it, so he stayed close to the floor and peeked around the side of all that was left of the board that used to cover the opening. “I don’t see anybody.”
“Me, either.” Reggie crawled up beside him. He had one of the sticks from the fire, and he tossed it out the window. It clattered to the ground.
There was no response, no gunfire. In fact, it was dead quiet for another whole minute. Then we heard a car door slam.
“Son of a-” It was gloomier than when I arrived at the Lake View, and I could just barely make out Sammi when she sprang to her feet. “That jerk ruined my shirt.” Her top lip curled, she brushed a hand over her T-shirt and stomped one foot.
“It’s just a shirt, Sammi. Chill.” Delmar made sure he kept his distance when he delivered his advice. “Better your shirt gets wasted than Pepper.”
Sammi being Sammi… well, she was well beyond being soothed. I’d like to think it was me being the shooter’s intended target that sent her over the edge, but it just as easily could have been the damage to her shirt. Before any of us could even think to stop her, she raced to the window, hopped over the sill, and barreled into the parking lot, swearing a blue streak at the top of her lungs.
“No!” I scrambled to my feet just as the car outside revved its engine and squealed its tires. Absalom and I made it to the window at the same time, and it might have been a toss-up as to who was going to push who out of the way and get outside first.
Except that the next sound we heard froze us both in our tracks.
The crack of a single gunshot.
By the time we jockeyed for position to get out of the window and raced to Sammi’s side, she was already dead.
“You look like you could use a cup of coffee.”
As if by magic, right after I heard these words, a disposable cup appeared under my nose. The coffee in it was hot and steamy, and it smelled like heaven.
Just thinking about drinking it made me feel like I was going to throw up.
I looked up from the coffee cup, and maybe I should have been, but I wasn’t surprised to find Quinn was on the other end of it. He slid into the backseat of the police car to sit next to me. “You all right?” he asked.
I’d like to say I sniffed, but the noise I made was way less polite than that. I swigged, and when he handed me a handkerchief, I grabbed it gratefully and wiped my nose and eyes.
“We were just doing research,” I said, telling Quinn the same story I’d told the patrol cops when they arrived in answer to my frenzied 911 call. It was, after all, technically the truth. “We were looking over the scene and talking about the crime, and-” I hiccupped. “That’s when the shooting started.”
“And this Sammi Santiago…” He consulted a small, leather-bound notebook. “She ran out of the room?”
“You know Sammi!” I felt I could get away with this explanation because Quinn was a Cemetery Survivor fan, and as every fan knew, Sammi has-er, had-a temper. He’d seen her in action. “She was so mad about the shooting and about her shirt getting dirty…” I remembered how back in the room, she thought her T-shirt was ruined, and how out in the parking lot when I finally dropped to my knees at her side, I saw that St. James’s face was obliterated by the dark red blood that oozed from the wound in Sammi’s chest. When I tried to draw in a breath to steady myself, it wobbled on the sob stuck in my throat. “Sammi just took off. And that’s when…” I swallowed hard. It hurt. “That’s when we heard the shot.”
“And the car?”
I thought back to the moment I hopped out the window. “I only saw it from the back. It wasn’t new. I could tell that. It was gray. Or maybe white. It was getting dark, and it was hard to tell.”
“Did anybody think to get the license plate number?”
I shrugged. After the first detective on the scene interviewed me, a nice uniformed officer sat me down in the patrol car, got a blanket out of the trunk, and draped it over my shoulders. The blanket sagged. Quinn didn’t adjust it. “I didn’t see much,” I told him. “I was looking at Sammi, and it all happened so fast.” I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the way the shooter escaped or the way a person can be living one second and gone the next. Since my eyes filled with tears and my nose clogged, I don’t think I was talking about the shooter.
“It’s OK,” Quinn said. “It’s over now. You’re safe.”
I was, and it didn’t make me feel one bit better. When he made a move to get out of the car, I plucked at his sleeve. “How did you know I was here?”
“I heard the call on the radio. The dispatcher mentioned the Lake View.” His expression was dead serious. “I remembered that file you asked for, so I figured you were here. They said there was a victim, a woman. I thought-” He didn’t finish the sentence, just slid out of the car.
Before he could walk away, I leaned over to see him better. “Did you call Virgil?”
“I’ll leave that up to the patrol guys,” he said. He stooped down to look me in the eye. “We’re done talking to you for now, though somebody will probably be by tomorrow to interview you again. You want me to follow you home?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Fresh tears welled, and I didn’t even bother to brush them away. “I’m a little confused.”
He nodded. “It’s the shock. I loaded your coffee with sugar. That ought to help.” He looked toward the Mustang. “You stay put for a few minutes, and when I can break away, we’ll get you out of here.”
He’d already walked away before I had a chance to tell him that would be fine. I had a million questions that demanded answers, and not enough energy to move a muscle. I sat in the back of the patrol car, and after a while, though I don’t remember drinking it, I saw that my coffee cup was empty. Quinn was right about the sugar helping; I wasn’t as shaky. I didn’t know where he got the coffee in the first place, but I dragged myself out of the police car to look for more.
I guess my relationship with Quinn was what had earned me the luxury of sitting in that patrol car in the first place. When I found them, Absalom, Jake, Reggie, and Delmar were herded to one side of the building, shuffling their feet and waiting for the official go-ahead to leave. They looked as miserable as I felt.
“You OK?” The blanket was still hanging from my shoulders, and Absalom straightened it. “You look awful.”
“I just can’t believe it.” Like I needed to tell them that? “I don’t suppose any of the cops said anything. About anything they’ve found? Or who could have done this?”
“Seems to me, you’re the best one who could answer that.” Absalom was right, but he didn’t press the point, and I don’t think it was because he was willing to cut me any slack. He looked tired. “All they did was ask us what we were doing here.”
“And you told them…?”
Reggie’s shrug said it all. “Told them we was following you. And that you was doing research. For the restoration at the cemetery.”
As far as it went, it was true, but it wasn’t the whole story, and it was about time they knew it. I sighed. “What I’ve really been doing is wasting time,” I said. “I think I know who buried that coin at Jefferson Lamar’s grave. He’s a man named Dale Morgan, and I should have talked to him long ago. I would have, if I wasn’t too scared to do what I knew I had to do.”
Delmar’s eyes were red, like he’d been crying. Because he didn’t want me to see, he hung his head. “You ain’t scared of nothin’,” he said. “You ran out of that room, just like the rest of us did.”
“But maybe I wouldn’t have been here in the first place. Not if I talked to Dale Morgan first. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe if I found out what he knows, maybe Sammi wouldn’t be-”
A noise from behind us stopped me, and I turned just in time to see a couple paramedics lift Sammi’s body onto a stretcher and put it in an ambulance.
I don’t know what it was about watching the scene that knocked the shock out of me. I do know that when it was gone, the only thing left behind was exhaustion.
My knees were weak and my shoulders sagged. I barely heard Absalom when he asked, “What you going to do?”
“I dunno.” It was the truth. My eyes filled with fresh tears. “I know I can’t just stand here, not when Sammi’s dead and…” I sobbed. “It’s not the kind of place where women should get killed. It’s a stupid little motel with flamingoes on the bathroom walls.”
I listened to my own words wash back at me, and a chill like the touch of a dead hand tingled up my legs and into my body. My veins filled with ice water.
I stood there thinking for so long, Absalom figured something was wrong. He waved a hand in front of my face. “Pepper? You OK?”
If only he knew. I was as far from OK as it was possible to get.
I threw off the blanket, and I was in my car and out of the parking lot before any of them could ask where I was going.
At Garden View, there’s a gate that employees use when they come into work early or leave late. It’s in an out-of-the-way place, and not many people know it’s there. Those of us who do have access to the code that unlocks it.
There is no such entrance at Monroe Street. The cemetery isn’t as big, for one thing, and since the only people on the payroll are city maintenance workers who come and go in daylight hours, there’s really no need for anything but the main gate.
Which means that gate gets locked every evening.
Which is a shame since by the time I drove across town and parked in front of the cemetery, it was long past sunset.
Which explains why I had to climb over the iron fence.
I am not by nature an athletic person. Besides a sweat (never a pretty thing), I broke a couple fingernails. And ripped my jeans. I got to the top of the head-high fence and held my breath, panicking at the height and the possibilities that spread out in front of me in a litany of disasters: broken bones, concussions, mussed hair.
None of that was anything I wanted to think about, and rather than dwell and panic some more, I closed my eyes, let go, and dropped. It would be nice to say I landed gracefully, but truth be told, I ended up on my butt.
No way I was going to let any of it stop me.
I was hobbling a bit, but my steps were fueled by the anger that had been building since the Lake View. Limp or no limp, I headed straight for Jefferson Lamar’s grave.
“You get over here, and you get here right now!” I didn’t care who heard me, so I didn’t even try to keep my voice down. Besides, who knows how loud you have to scream to be heard on the Other Side. “Lamar!” I tried again. “I need to talk to you, and I need to talk to you now!”
There was a shimmer in the air about ten feet away, and the next thing I knew, Jefferson Lamar was adjusting his big honkin’ glasses on the bridge of his nose. “It’s late,” he said. “Shouldn’t you be-”
In three steps, I closed the distance between us, and I guess I’d learned something from Sammi after all (besides how not to dress). If I wasn’t sure my hands would swish right through him, I would have shoved him hard enough to knock him down, just like I’d seen her do to Virgil. With no more substantial way to demonstrate my anger, I pointed a finger at his nose. “You lied to me. And now somebody’s trying to kill me. And somebody did kill Sammi. Are you listening?” I don’t know how he couldn’t be, since by this time, I was screaming at the top of my lungs. “Did you hear me? I said Sammi’s dead. Just like Vera. And her death is all your fault. Just like Vera’s.”
“No.” He slashed a hand through the air and this close, I felt the ripple of an icy breeze. “I didn’t kill Vera. I told you-”
“You told me you weren’t screwing her.” When I stared into those dead eyes of his, my jaw was so rigid, it felt like it was going to snap. “You told me that. You swore it was true. But you knew. You told me yourself. You said the Lake View was the kind of tacky place with flamingoes on the bathroom wallpaper.”
“Oh.” Right before my eyes, Lamar folded like an origami stork. It was all the proof I needed, and I guess that should have made me feel better.
All it did was make me madder than ever.
“There were no crime scene photographs that showed the bathroom at the Lake View,” I told him. Even though I shouldn’t have had to point this out, I wanted to watch him squirm. “There’s no way you could have known about the flamingoes. Not if you weren’t there.”
He backed away and refused to meet my eyes. “It doesn’t mean I killed her,” he said.
“It means you’re lying.”
His shoulders rose and fell. “You’re right.”
“Well, hot damn!” I laughed, but believe me, there was no humor in the sound. If they bottled sarcasm, they would come to me as the source. “So all this time, you’ve been proclaiming your innocence, and all this time, I’ve been stupid enough to believe you. And now you’re telling me you’re not innocent. That you’re a murderer!”
“No, not a murderer. But not innocent, either.”
The only way I could try to think to steady my rattling heart rate was to take a deep breath. “You admit it? You and Vera-”
When he turned and walked away, I followed right after him. Good thing. If I wasn’t close by, I wouldn’t have heard him when he mumbled, “She was young and pretty and lively. I was a married middle-aged man, and I loved Helen. Believe me.”
“Yeah, like I’ve believed you all this time?”
We were near the beat-up mausoleum, and Lamar stopped. “There was something exciting about being with Vera,” he said. “Something dangerous. She was so prim and efficient in the office, but when we were alone together, she was wild and different, and she made me feel so young! So-”
“So much like the cheat you really were?”
His shoulders sagged. “The guilt was overwhelming. Even so, I couldn’t stop myself. There were nights I told Helen I had to work late. Vera and I, we would head away from Central State to someplace where no one would recognize us.”
“To the Lake View?”
“No, that’s the truth. The night Vera was killed…” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “That was the one and only time we’d ever been to the Lake View. How that clerk said he recognized us… why he would lie like that…”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Seems to be a lot of that going around.”
“I’m sorry.” The way he said it, I almost believed him. “I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. If Helen finds out…”
“Is that a little bit of conscience I hear talking?” Since I thought it was, my anger ratcheted back. A little, anyway. “How could you be so heartless? Not to mention stupid?”
“I’d never done anything like it before. I never would have again. But there was something about Vera…”
“And when you took the stand in court and denied you were having an affair with her?”
He scraped a hand through his buzz-cut hair. “All these years, I’ve second-guessed my decision to keep quiet about the affair.” He dared to look into my eyes. “I’ve second-guessed it,” he said, “but I’ve never regretted it. Sure, it might have helped. It might have done me some good to admit my sins. To explain what I was doing at the Lake View. But maybe it would have just made me look more guilty. And it surely would have broken Helen’s heart. I couldn’t do that. I’d done enough to hurt her.”
I took all this in, processing as I went. “So when you left Vera that night, you’re telling me she was still alive?”
“It’s the God’s honest truth. It was…” He cleared his throat. “It was supposed to be another of our usual dates. But that night, Vera told me it was over between us. She was going back to her old boyfriend.”
“She said she’d done a lot of thinking and come to realize there was no future for us. She said she was tired of the sneaking around. She wanted me to divorce Helen so we could be together, but… well, I couldn’t do that. I told Vera. I told her I never could.”
“So she gave you the old heave-ho and you-”
“I didn’t kill her.” He looked away. “We fought. I know it’s impossible for you to understand, but Vera… she made me crazy from wanting her. I couldn’t think straight. When Vera said she didn’t want to see me again…”
I thought about the crime scene photos. “You’re the one who gave her that fat lip.” When he didn’t deny it, my anger came back, full force. “You slapped her, you creep.”
He hung his head. “I’ve regretted it. All these years. I wished it had never happened, that her last night on earth wasn’t filled with pain and violence.” Lamar lifted his head to look into my eyes. “You do believe me, don’t you?”
I met him look for look. “What happened after you hit her?”
He swallowed hard. “She cried. And I begged her to forgive me. I told her how much she meant to me, how I couldn’t live without her. She wouldn’t listen.”
“I left. That’s all. I just walked out. I swear it’s the truth.”
Was I buying his story? Not lock, stock, and barrel (whatever that means). But I wasn’t going to dismiss it, either. At least not until I knew more.
“When you left, what was Vera wearing?” I asked him.
He cleared his throat. “Nothing. Not when I walked out. When we met that evening, she was dressed in the outfit she wore to work that day.”
“That’s why she didn’t care about your blood on her blouse. There was no use her changing clothes. You knew about the bloodstain. She knew you wouldn’t care.”
“The police never picked up on that.” He sounded grateful. “I was so devastated when I left the motel… about Vera leaving me… about how I’d lost control and hit her… I wasn’t thinking straight. I thought… I thought about killing myself. I would have done it, too, if I didn’t realize that Helen would wonder what had gone wrong. She’d never have the answers, and I couldn’t stand the thought of that. I drove home in a fog. The next morning when I got to my office, the police were there to tell me that Vera was dead. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t tell them that when I saw her last, she was getting ready to get dressed.
“So she was getting ready to leave, too. By the time the killer showed up at the door of the room, she was already dressed. And-”
“Maybe when he knocked on the door, maybe she thought it was me.” There was so much hope in his voice, it turned my stomach. “Maybe she opened it because she’d changed her mind and-”
“You’re pathetic. Do you know that?” I was in no mood to spare his feelings. “We’ve got two dead women on our hands, a marriage that self-exploded, and someone who wants to kill me because I’m looking into what really happened, and all you’re worried about is if your little love puppy wanted you back? ”
“It’s been my curse. I’ve spent all these years wondering. All these years obsessing about Vera. And I’ve come to realize that I’ll spend all eternity this way if I don’t do something to give Helen some peace. I’m a sinner, Pepper. I was a bad husband. But I’m not a murderer.”
He looked so miserable, I actually believed him.
I’m not exactly a fan of prison movies, but I’ve seen my share. When I visited Dale Morgan at Northern Ohio Correctional, I saw that those movies were pretty accurate. Just like in the movies, I sat on one side of a glass wall, he sat on the other, and we talked to each other on telephones.
Or more accurately, I talked on the phone, and he sat there pretty much not saying much of anything. Then again, he was too busy looking me over and salivating.
“You do remember Warden Lamar, don’t you?” When I entered the room, I was told not to touch the glass, but I looked over my shoulder to make sure the guard who stood near the door wasn’t watching and took my chances. I tapped on the glass to get Morgan’s attention. “You were at Central State when he was in charge.”
“He was a good man.” It was the most I’d gotten out of him since the gruff, “What’ya want?” he’d shot my way when he walked in.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t allowed to bring my purse into the visitors’ room (and the guards who’d taken it from me and put it in a locker better be handling it with kid gloves since it was a Juicy Couture), but I’d tucked the silver dollar from Lamar’s grave in the pocket of my khakis. I pulled it out so Morgan could see it. “You buried this at the warden’s grave.”
Dale Morgan was an I-don’t-know-how-old chunky, short man with eyes as dull as the gray linoleum at our feet. He had hair that was thin and too long, a tiger tattoo on his left arm, and the kind of desperate, hungry look I imagined most of the men in prison wore like a second skin, as if he were starving for anything even remotely related to the outside world. It was the only reason he’d agreed to see me in the first place, and I knew it. I was shameless enough not to care.
He squinted to get a better look at the silver dollar. “How would you know that about me burying that coin at Lamar’s grave?” he asked me. “I did that ten years ago or more. Between being at Central State and coming here. And what difference does it make, anyhow?”
“It makes a difference to you.” I didn’t know this for a fact, but if nothing else, I was getting good at throwing a line. “You could have taken him a bunch of flowers. You didn’t. You buried this coin because you were part of the warden’s coin group at Central State. And it’s a Morgan silver dollar, after all. That was your way of letting him know who left it there for him. The coin was significant to you, and it is to him, too. Or at least”-I added this before he could ask any questions-“it would be significant to him if he were alive to know about it. I think you did it to thank him for trying to help you turn your life around.”
Morgan’s smile was as lean and as sleek as the rest of him wasn’t. “Doesn’t look like it stuck, does it?”
I couldn’t argue with him there, and agreeing seemed tacky. Instead, I stuck with the plan I’d made in the hour-and-a-half drive from Cleveland. “You can still show him how much you appreciate all he tried to do for you,” I said. “You might still be able to help Warden Lamar.”
Morgan darted a look around the room. It was a Thursday, and there weren’t many visitors around. The closest prisoner to him was three chairs away, and that man was so engrossed with talking to a woman with bad hair, a way-too-tight miniskirt, and a blouse with a plunging neckline, he wasn’t paying any attention to our conversation. Morgan lowered his voice, anyway.
For the first time since I walked into the prison, I felt some of the tension inside me uncurl.
I scooted forward in my chair. “I don’t think Warden Lamar killed Vera Blaine,” I said. “And maybe you don’t think so, either. Is that why you buried that coin at his grave? Did you feel you owed him something? If you’d spoken up sooner-”
His look was as fierce as the tiger on his arm. “You trying to pin something on me?”
“No. Not at all.” I tried for a smile, but let’s face it, it’s hard to smile in a place that frisks you when you walk in. “I don’t think you did it. In fact, I’m sure you didn’t. If you did, you never would have left that coin for Lamar. But…”
This was the moment I’d gone to the prison for, and now that it had come, I felt butterflies flutter through my stomach. I reminded myself that all Morgan could do was get mad at me for what I was about to say. In comparison with someone trying to kill me and someone murdering Sammi, it was small potatoes.
“I was hoping that maybe you would know something about the murder,” I told him. “Like maybe who did it.”
Except for his gaze, which darted left and right, he went as still as a statue. “Who told you?”
“Then it’s true? You do know about what happened?”
“Didn’t say it was true. I asked who told you.”
“Nobody.” It was the truth, and somehow, I think he appreciated me admitting it. Or maybe I was just hoping. “But I know you respected the warden, and you’d want to see justice done. I might be able to prove he was innocent. If I could, it would give his widow peace, and it would put a murderer where he belongs. If you know anything-”
I saw him signal for the guard who would take him back to his cell, and yeah, I panicked. I was too close to the truth. Maybe. I’d never know if Morgan wasn’t willing to talk.
“You can’t just walk away,” I blurted out.
He laughed. “You’re right. I can’t walk away. Not from this place. But I’ll tell you what, it sure gets lonely in here. I hardly ever get any visitors, you know what I mean?”
I did. I gulped and nodded. “You want me to come back.”
“Tomorrow.” Morgan stood. “And you could dress a little nicer, you know?” He glanced at the woman who sat nearby. “Like that lady over there,” he said, and he hung up the phone.
Maybe it was just as well, because I was just about to tell him to stick it.
Then again, like I said, I was shameless, and too close to the truth to walk away now.
I wondered if there was a Frederick’s of Hollywood nearby.
I may have been desperate, but I am not completely without pride. I skipped Frederick’s of Hollywood and opted for Kmart. Which, of course, is just as embarrassing in its own special way. When I walked into the prison the next day, my outfit lacked style-not to mention class-but if the head-turning looks I got from the guards meant anything, it did its job.
I had Sammi to thank for teaching me to dress like this.
Short, short red skirt. White tee with a V-neck that plunged way more than anything should on a woman with a 38C chest. It was sleeveless and had one of those crisscross backs that meant it was impossible for me to wear a bra. But then, that was the whole point. Shoes with skinny heels and chunky soles added another couple inches to my height.
I had stopped just short of being the girl-on-the-street-corner. But not by much.
Dale Morgan was not disappointed. When he walked into the visitors’ room, I stayed on my feet long enough for him to look me over. When he picked up the phone on his side of the glass, his smile was oily. “If I ask you to come back tomorrow, what will you wear then? Because I’ll tell you what, honey, I could spend the rest of my time in here just dreaming about what you were going to show up in every day.”
I might have looked like a bimbo, but I didn’t have to act like one. I dropped into the chair on the other side of the glass from his and glared at him in a way that said there was no negotiating room in what I was about to say. “There will be no tomorrow. You’ve got this one chance and this one chance only to look long and hard and enjoy this tacky little outfit that I put together in the tacky little town where I stayed last night. So, you talk now, and if you do, I’ll stick around until visiting hours are over. You clam up or beat around the bush and I’m out of here, right now. Am I clear?”
I was. He didn’t have to tell me. He looked over as much of me as he could see from where he was sitting. “You went out yesterday when you left here and you bought that outfit?”
“Just for me?”
“I certainly wouldn’t have bought it for myself. Clear reds do not look good on natural redheads, but this was the shortest skirt I could find, so I made the sacrifice. And the shirt is two sizes too small.”
His eyes went dreamy. “The shirt is perfect!”
I pinned him with a look. “Talk.”
Morgan leaned back in his chair. “What do you want to know?”
I didn’t let him see how relieved I was. “You were in Central State at the time Vera Blaine was killed. I want to know what the other prisoners were saying, how they felt about what happened. Did anybody have any theories… you know, about Lamar’s arrest and conviction?”
“Theories?” He laughed like maybe I was a bimbo after all. “Nobody’s got any theories in a place like this. They only got secrets.”
“What’s your secret, Mr. Morgan?”
“Mine?” He grinned. “Word is going to spread through gen pop that you visited me two days in a row, and everybody but everybody’s going to be talking about what a fine-looking woman you are. They’re going to be all over it, wondering how Dale Morgan got a babe as gorgeous as you, speculating about who you are and what we’re saying to each other and when you’re coming back. My secret is that I’m never going to say one thing about why you’re really here. That will make them keep wondering, and that will make me look like a big man, you know?”
“And what was Warden Lamar’s secret?” I asked, and at the same time, I hoped he didn’t know the secret that I hoped only I knew. I wasn’t there to gossip, and it would serve no purpose for anyone to know about Lamar’s affair with Vera.
He pursed his lips. “I don’t think the warden was a secrets sort of man. He was up-front. Regulated, you know. He had high expectations for all of us. And he kept them, even when we were released and came back, again and again. The warden was noble, and I let him down.”
“You don’t mean by just ending up back in here. You knew something about Vera Blaine’s murder.”
He hesitated. “Knowing something he shouldn’t know can get a man killed in a place like this.”
I had no doubt of it. I didn’t press the point.
“If Lamar didn’t have any secrets, then who had secrets about him? Reno Bob Oates? Or Bad Dog Raphael?”
Morgan’s eyes widened. We were the only ones in the visitors’ room that afternoon, but he still took a careful look around before he spoke. “Why those two?”
“Why not? They both hated Lamar. Either one could have-”
“They didn’t both have those kinds of connections, if you know what I mean. A man inside, he needs connections on the outside to make something big like that go down.”
“Something big like a murder and then framing the warden for it?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
I thought about Reno Bob and Bad Dog. “You’re saying Reno Bob didn’t have the chops. He always worked alone. Mack Raphael was the one with the gang connections. You’re saying it had to have been Bad Dog.”
“Didn’t say that. Wouldn’t.” He looked around again. “A man like Bad Dog has friends in lots of places. I know this for a fact, see. I was his cellmate at Central State.”
This was something I didn’t know. I tried not to look too interested. “And you may have heard something. Or overheard something. Is that what you’re saying?”
He shook his head. “I ain’t saying anything of the sort. Like I said, I couldn’t. I value my life too much. Makes me wonder why you aren’t so smart.”
It was a logical assumption. But then, Morgan didn’t know that Helen Lamar had been her husband’s staunchest supporter all these years, and he certainly didn’t know that Lamar had done her wrong and that she deserved something for her misplaced trust in him. He didn’t know that someone was out to get me. He didn’t know about Sammi, either, and I told him about her and about how we’d started out on the opposite sides of a lot of issues (like taste and fashion, not to mention the law), but how Sammi and I had ended up understanding each other. If we had had more time, we might have been friends.
“You can see why I’ve got a sort of personal stake in this,” I said when I was done. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I had the feeling he understood where I was coming from.
He shifted the phone from his left ear to his right. “I may have overheard something once. A certain cellmate of mine bragging that he’d given the warden a taste of his own medicine. He never mentioned details, but he said he had proof of what he’d done. Said that Bad Dog was sitting on the evidence and laughing his ass off.”
“What does that mean?”
Morgan made a face. “Like I know? I’m just telling you what he said, ‘Bad Dog is sitting on the evidence and laughing his ass off.’ Made no sense to me then, makes no sense to me now. Maybe doesn’t even mean anything.”
“But maybe it does, and maybe you were feeling guilty for never reporting what you’d heard to the cops. Is that what you were trying to tell Lamar by burying that coin at his grave?”
“If that was true, you’d be assuming I had a conscience. You think that’s true?”
“I think Warden Lamar wouldn’t have believed in you if it wasn’t.”
“Yeah. Well. Whatever.” He looked away.
I didn’t want to lose him, or the thread of our conversation. I shifted a little in my chair to attract his attention. “So it’s true? Bad Dog Raphael arranged Vera’s murder?”
“Never said that.” Dale Morgan looked at the clock that hung on the wall behind me. “What I will say is what I said before. Bad Dog, he’s got connections. All kinds of people are on his payroll. You should know that so you can be careful.”
His comment made me think about something that had been bugging me since the night of the ruined art show and our bachelor auction. “How about reporters?” I asked. “Does Bad Dog have some of them on his payroll?”
He sucked his teeth. “Couldn’t say. But I wouldn’t be surprised. You thinking about anyone in particular?”
I was, of course. Mike Kowalski. I wasn’t about to say it. If I was wrong, and if Morgan was somehow allied with Bad Dog, I could be getting Kowalski in a whole bunch of trouble he didn’t deserve. If I was right, and if Morgan was a snitch, I could be signing my own death warrant.
“I’m just asking, that’s all. I appreciate all your help.”
“I haven’t helped you.” Morgan sat back, his right arm thrown casually over the back of his chair. “And if you tell anybody I have, I’ll deny it. If you send any cops here to confirm what I’ve said-”
“I won’t. I swear.” I crossed my heart.
And that little movement of my finger across my chest got him back to thinking about what he’d been thinking about since I walked in the room. “Forty-five more minutes until visiting hours are over,” he growled. “Since you’re going to be staying around, how about you hitch that skirt of yours a little higher and-”
I silenced him with a look that was cold enough to shatter the glass between us, and Morgan got the message.
“So,” he grumbled, “what do you want to talk about?”
What Dale Morgan and I talked about for the next forty-five minutes isn’t the least bit important. Neither is the fact that as soon as I got back to my hotel, I changed into the real clothes I’d worn to northern Ohio the day before. My purchased-just-for-the-occasion outfit went in the trash, and I hightailed it back to Cleveland as fast as I could.
I had plenty to do. The last episode of Cemetery Survivor was scheduled to start shooting, and we had to put the finishing touches on our section before the judges made their final sweep. Once that was done, and we handed our money over to the volunteers who would be continuing our work, the winners of the show would be announced.
A couple weeks ago, I cared. A lot. The Monday after I met with Dale Morgan, I drummed my fingers on the table of the McDonald’s where I was sitting. Yes, it was the one across the street from Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation, and no, I didn’t feel guilty sitting there when there was so much to do back at Monroe Street. I’d left Absalom in charge, and besides, I had to figure out what I was going to do next.
It was five minutes later, and I was no closer to a solution, when Absalom and Reggie slid into the booth across from me. Delmar and Crazy Jake were there, too. They sat in the next booth over.
“You were supposed to keep these guys working back at the cemetery,” I told Absalom.
He grinned and grabbed a handful of my fries. He pointed toward me with one of them. “You’re up to something. Except to keep an eye on Bad Dog, why else would you be hanging out here? You got your voodoo doll?”
I did, and to prove it, I pulled it out of my pocket and showed it to him, and he nodded, satisfied.
I wished things were that easy. “Keeping an eye on Bad Dog isn’t getting me anywhere,” I grumbled. The food on my tray was cold. That didn’t stop Absalom from polishing off the fries, or Reggie from grabbing the double cheeseburger. Jake had his own chocolate shake, so Delmar took mine. Since the food was all just a decoy to make me look like I belonged there, and I had no intention of eating that many empty calories, anyway, I didn’t mind. “I haven’t seen anything unusual or suspicious.”
“Like you thought you would?” Reggie chuckled. “You don’t think the guy’s actually going to come right out and admit he killed Sammi when he was trying to kill you, do you?”
I hadn’t told them why I was there. In fact, I hadn’t told them where I was going when I left the cemetery at lunchtime.
“She’s not the only one he killed,” I said, sure to keep my voice down. “I think he’s responsible for another murder, too, and for Warden Lamar’s death, since he died of embarrassment his first night in prison.”
Absalom didn’t look surprised. “So what are we going to do about it?”
“Well, for one thing, we can figure out the weird thing Bad Dog told somebody in prison. He said he had proof of who committed that murder twenty-five years ago. He said Bad Dog was sitting on the proof and laughing his ass off. What do you suppose that means?”
Not one of them had an answer.
I drummed my fingers some more, staring at the car lot while I thought about everything Dale Morgan told me. I watched the office and saw a couple people walk back and forth, including Bad Dog himself. I paid attention to the skillful way the salesman, Bud, ambushed a couple strolling by and dragged them around to the side of the lot to show them a car. I glanced up at the mechanical dog atop that pole.
And that’s when it hit me.
“Bad Dog’s sitting on the evidence and laughing his ass off,” I mumbled. Right before I popped out of my seat and headed for the door.
“Hey! What are you doing? Where are you going?” Absalom and the others scrambled to catch up.
“Back to Monroe Street,” I told them. “We’ve got work to do.” I would have gone right on sounding upbeat and confident if another thought hadn’t struck.
I craned my neck and looked up at that smiling, mechanical dog.
It was a long way to the top of that pole.
By this time, I knew better than to try and go anywhere without my team. They were going to follow me, anyway, whether I wanted them to or not. I figured it was easier and would cause less commotion if I just told them to meet me at the cemetery at two in the morning. They were dying to know what was up, but I refused to give anything away. We gathered outside the gates of Monroe Street, piled into my car, and we were back at Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation by two fifteen.
At that time of night, the neighborhood wasn’t exactly hopping, but it wasn’t dead quiet, either. The Mc-Donald’s had just closed, and we parked on a side street where we could watch the workers sweep up, turn out the lights, and drag to their cars. A couple lowriders bounced by, their radios blaring. We waited for them to pass before we got out of the car.
“You’re not plannin’ on breakin’ and enterin’, are you?” Absalom walked at my side, eyeing the darkened office. There were a couple security lights shining on the used car lot, one near the office door, and another aimed at the double doors that led into a side garage. There was a spotlight high up on the pole to illuminate the mechanical dog. He was doing his job, still waving. The blue neon light in the office window was on, too. Other than that, the place was as dark and as quiet as I’d hoped it would be. “You’re gonna get caught,” Absalom warned. “You’re gonna get in trouble. You are not the kind of woman who will do well in jail, I’ll tell you that. You’re gonna-”
“Trust me, I’m not even thinking about going inside the office.” I gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder at the same time I craned my neck to see to the top of the pole and the laughing, waving dog. “All I want to do is get a closer look.”
“At that?” Except for a cat mewling nearby, it was pretty quiet. Which is why I heard Delmar gulp. “It’s awfully high up.”
By this time we were standing at the bottom of the pole. I glanced up at the metal handholds that started four feet above my head, then down at the sneakers I’d been sensible enough to wear, then around at my team. “If one of you could give me a boost…”
Since the question burst out of Absalom and Reggie at the same time, I wasn’t sure which of them to answer. “It’s the only way I’m going to be able to check out my theory. Dale Morgan said that Bad Dog said he had proof that he killed Vera. Well, Morgan didn’t exactly say it. I mean, he didn’t want to come right out and say it. But he sort of said it. He said that Raphael said that Bad Dog was sitting on the evidence and laughing his ass off.”
Reggie’s brow creased. The pit bull tattoo frowned. He crossed his arms over his chest. “If you think there’s evidence, then you should tell the cops and have them come look for it.”
“And they’d listen, right?” Nobody answered, but just in case any one of them was formulating a comeback, I supplied my logic. “Dale Morgan is never going to come out and admit what he told me about Bad Dog. He’s too scared, and I don’t blame him. Apparently, Bad Dog’s got a network that extends into prisons, and if word gets out that Morgan led the cops to this evidence, he’s dead meat. That means the cops won’t hear it from Morgan. And they’re not going to hear about Morgan from me. I’m already responsible for what happened to Sammi. I’m not going to let the same thing happen to Morgan. Even if he is smarmy.”
The Big Car Nation sign in the office window washed an icy blue color over Absalom’s face. “You can’t climb up there.”
“You’ll kill yourself,” Delmar chimed in.
It was, of course, a scenario I’d already considered, and rather than think about it again and chicken out the way I’d been tempted to chicken out ever since I came up with this plan, I closed in on the pole. “Come on, somebody help me out here. I don’t want to have to climb on the roof of a car to reach the bottom rung, but I’ll do it if I need to.”
With the back of one hand, Absalom pushed me out of the way. “I’ll do it,” he said.
“You’re too big to reach around the mechanical dog and see what’s inside that car.”
“Then I’ll do it.” Delmar stepped forward.
“You don’t need another ding on your record if you get caught. None of you do.” I rubbed my hands together like I couldn’t wait to get started. It was partly for show, partly because I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to fall and end up dead on the hood of the ’98 Accord parked nearby. “All I’m going to do is climb up, take a look inside the car, and see if the mechanical Bad Dog is sitting on anything. Nobody’s going to see me. Nobody’s going to notice a thing. At least not if you all clear out and stop standing around like you’re casing the place. I brought reinforcements.” I pulled the voodoo doll Absalom had given me out of my pocket just to show I meant it. Before my courage faded, I had to move, and I had to move fast. I stepped closer to the pole. “Help me up, will you?”
They weren’t happy about it, but they gave me the boost I needed, and before I could talk myself out of it, I had one foot on the lowest metal rung and my hands clasped around another rung two feet above my head. I steadied myself. I swore I wasn’t going to look down. I took a deep breath, and I started to climb.
Really, the pole wasn’t all that high. At least that’s what I told myself. Twenty feet is what, maybe as high as the top of a house? It felt like I was climbing to the moon.
One hand over the other, one foot carefully planted before I dared to lift the other, I made my way toward the dog sitting in the car at the top of the pole. Big points for me, I froze only once, and that was only because a car cruised by. It didn’t slow down, and that meant the driver hadn’t seen me. Really, I wasn’t all that surprised. Who in their right mind expects to see a woman climbing a pole in the middle of the night? Who would even bother to look? With that car gone, everything below me was quiet. I hoped my team had listened and hightailed it around the corner, but I didn’t have the nerve to look. Instead, I continued my ascent.
I’d like to think I made it to the top in record time, but truth be told, it took longer than it should have. Once my nose was on the same level as the handle on the door of the car and that mechanical dog arm was waving right over my head, I breathed a sigh of relief. A couple more cautious steps and I was grasping the window frame of the car. From the ground, I hadn’t realized how big the mechanical dog was; I needed to be careful, or his waving arm would clunk me. I also needed to stay out of the glow of the spotlight that was trained on the dog. I lifted one foot off the metal rung where it was perched and pivoted sideways. Hanging on with one hand, I peered into the car.
The mechanical dog was no more than the head and arm that stuck out the window. He was built on a wooden frame; his motor whirred from the floor on the passenger side of the car. Technically, he didn’t have an ass, but that didn’t stop me from looking on the driver’s seat, anyway. That spotlight outside illuminated the dog, but the interior of the car was dark.
I inched closer. The wooden frame the dog was set on had a heavy, solid bottom. If I could reach under it…
I stretched, but the way I was standing, my reach wasn’t long enough. I kept my place, watching the mechanical arm swing back and forth and timing my next move. When the dog’s arm was farthest from its body, I swiveled, grabbed the frame of the car, and squeezed myself into the front seat.
I guess my timing was perfect.
No sooner was I sitting next to the dog, and cursing because of the scrapes I’d gotten as I squashed myself flat to get past his wooden frame, than every light in the car lot came on.
“This has nothing to do with you, Pepper. It can’t.”
I consoled myself with these brave words, but at the same time, I hit the floor and stayed there.
“There’s no way anybody knows you’re up here. There’s no chance anybody would even think to look. Nobody would be crazy enough to climb that pole and end up in this car with this dog.”
Nobody but me.
And it would be a shame to waste all that crazy effort.
I bent my head, listening for sounds from down in the car lot, and when I didn’t hear a thing, I got to work, feeling my way through the dark to the wooden platform that supported the dog. I slid my hand under it.
“Sitting on evidence,” I reminded myself. “He said Bad Dog was sitting on the evidence.”
But the only evidence I felt was evidence that the mechanical Bad Dog had been there long enough for the seats in the car to get damp and moldy. I grumbled, wiped my hand on my jeans, and tried again. This time, I poked my hand into the elbow where the bench met the back of the seat-and touched something that crinkled.
Encouraged, I reached in a little farther. With my index finger, I could just feel the corner of what felt like an envelope. I stretched, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. Not without twisting myself into a pretzel between Bad Dog and his motor.
I pulled out my hand, squirmed around so that I was kneeling squarely between the motor and the dog, and tried again.
Again, I felt the envelope, but I couldn’t grab it.
I stretched just a little more, and when that didn’t work, I raised up from my knees, extended my right leg, and… kicked the motor.
It stopped dead.
So did Bad Dog, frozen in midwave.
Without the constant whirr of his motor in my ears, it was awfully quiet. I was awfully glad. With no distractions, I was able to try again, and this time, with a little more room and a lot more stretching, I grabbed hold of what was stuffed into the seat and brought it out from its hiding place.
It was one of those big manila envelopes, and it was wrapped in some plastic material that was probably meant to make it waterproof. I slid my finger under the tape that held it closed, and when that didn’t budge it, I resorted to my teeth. What my mom would say if she knew that nearly five thousand dollars of orthodontic work was being put to the test chewing through tape, I didn’t want to know. The only thing that mattered was that it worked.
I slid the envelope out of its protective casing, opened it, and tipped out the contents. There wasn’t much. But then, there didn’t need to be. I found what I was looking for and I positioned myself so that I could catch a bit of the light from outside the car and stared at the Polaroid picture in my hands.
The black and white photo showed Vera’s lifeless body on the floor of room 12. It was taken long before the police and the crime scene photographer arrived. How did I know? Well, there were a couple of clues. For one thing, in this photo, Vera was still wearing the locket that Lamar said contained a picture of her grandmother. She wasn’t wearing it in the photos in the crime scene files. To me, that could mean only that the killer took it. For another, though the dresser mirror was cracked, there was no mistaking the fact that the man who took the picture had caught his own reflection in the mirror.
I was staring into the face of a killer, one I recognized.
It looked like Bud had other talents than just selling used cars. Mack Raphael was in Central State at the time of the murder, so of course he would have had to have hired a hit man, and apparently the two were still together. Bud had done his job well. He must have stolen Lamar’s gun, then followed Vera and Lamar to the Lake View and waited for his opportunity. This picture, the locket, and the blood oozing out of the gunshot wound to Vera’s chest was all the proof he needed to show Raphael that he’d done his job and done it well.
And all these years, Bad Dog Raphael had kept the picture as a trophy.
I was still staring at the photograph when a couple of things happened all at once. I heard someone down in the car lot yell something that sounded like, “Watch out, Pepper!” but by that time, it was too late. Because the next thing I knew, Mack Raphael was looking into the car window at me.
Believe me, if there was any place to run, I would have taken off like a shot.
Not a good choice of words, considering that when Raphael moved his arm, the light glanced off the gun he aimed in my direction.
Call it self-preservation. Or just stupidity, considering that the interior of the car wasn’t very big and I wasn’t very small, but I scrambled to duck behind the dog’s motor.
“Give me the picture,” Mack Raphael barked. “And I won’t shoot.”
“And I really believe you.” My hands shaking, I shoved the photograph back in the envelope. “Maybe I’ll just hang on to this picture until I get safely down on the ground. After that-”
“After that, you don’t think you’ll make it out of my car lot alive, do you? Don’t you listen to the news? The county prosecutor just refused to file charges against some guy who shot a burglar. That’s what they’ll think you are, Miss Martin. A burglar. You should have listened when you were warned to mind your own business.”
“You mean the guy who tried to mug me? Let me guess, it’s the same guy who’s been watching me at the cemetery. The same one who’s been sending those tacky flowers and the cheap chocolates.” Never let it be said that Pepper Martin lost her sense of style, not even in the face of a bad guy with a gun. Since I suspected whoever was responsible for Vera’s death was behind the mugging and the art show vandalism all along, and since now I knew that someone was Bad Dog, I was entitled to roll my eyes. And to speculate just a little more.
“And let me guess, Mike Kowalski is the one who told you I was digging into your past. I’m right about that, too, aren’t I? I’ll bet I’m right about how he gets all his stories, too. You’re the one feeding him information. That would explain how you two know each other, and I know you do. I saw you chatting it up at our fundraiser. No way a guy like Kowalski is working his butt off to get at the truth and win all those prestigious awards. He’s washed up and jaded. Not exactly the type who would put himself in danger to get a big story. But it makes a whole bunch of sense if you’re feeding him the info. You want to put a rival out of business, you give Kowalski the details. He writes the story, shuts the guy down, and you, what, get a bigger piece of the pie?”
“You talk too much.” He poked the gun in my direction. “Now give me that picture or by the time those friends of yours who are hiding around the corner find you, they’ll have to scrape you out of the inside of this car.”
“Let me get down. Then I’ll give you the picture.”
Raphael wasn’t in the mood to talk terms. But then, neither was I. Tired of waiting, he lunged forward, and when he did, I did the only thing I could think to do. At the same time I tossed the envelope with the photograph inside it out the passenger window, I kicked the dog’s motor as hard as I could. It started up with a noisy belch, and Bad Dog’s arm jerked into motion. With nothing else to defend me, I pulled the voodoo doll out of my pocket and flung it at Raphael. I caught him off guard, and he flinched and jerked backward. And when the mechanical Bad Dog waved, his arm clunked Mack Raphael on the back of the head.
He grunted and a second later, he slipped out of the window.
Too afraid to look and too afraid to stay where I was and remain a sitting duck, I crawled to the driver’s side of the car, raised myself on my knees, and peeked out the window. Raphael was hanging onto the car with one hand, squirming like a worm on the end of a fishing line. When I saw that he was still holding on to that gun of his, I ducked back into the car, but really, I didn’t have to worry.
That was right about when I heard the first wails of the police sirens.
By the time I was back down on solid ground, Mack Raphael was bundled into the back of an unmarked police car. The heck with worrying about if he had or hadn’t ordered Vera Blaine’s murder; the cops were not happy when they arrived and found Raphael waving a gun in their direction.
Absalom had gotten ahold of the envelope and the precious photo inside. “You’ve got Reggie to thank for calling the cops,” he said. “And I’ve got to say, it’s still about the most harebrained stunt I’ve ever seen. You could’a been killed.”
“I wasn’t.” My knees were made of Elmer’s school glue, and I leaned against the pole. I was still trying to catch my breath when another unmarked car careened into the lot, slammed to a stop, and Quinn jumped out.
“What is wrong with you?” He was screaming at me before he was within ten feet, and my teammates got the message loud and clear; they scattered.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, thanks for asking.” I pulled myself upright, because if I was going to proclaim that I was fine, I figured I might as well look it. “What, were you listening to the police radio again? That’s how you knew what was going on?”
“I heard Raphael’s name mentioned. That was enough to convince me you were involved.” He grabbed me by the shoulders, and I think he would have shaken me if he thought he could get away with it. There was green fire in Quinn’s eyes. “I haven’t even heard half the story yet, and I’m pretty sure you just almost got yourself killed.”
“You’ll like the rest of the story.” I grinned. “I think you’re going to be able to close the case on Sammi Santiago’s murder. And with any luck, I have a feeling you’re going to get to rewrite the Jefferson Lamar case, too. Mack Raphael ordered Vera Blaine’s murder. He’s the one who framed the warden.”
Yeah, it’s not polite to interrupt, but I knew if I didn’t do something and do it quick, Quinn was going to read me the riot act. I was so not in the mood.
“I’m fine. You want to check me out?”
“I want to wring your neck.”
I sidled closer. “But you won’t.”
I guess he had to think about it, because he didn’t answer right away. Instead, he sighed his surrender. “Look, Pepper… when I heard the call come in tonight… It was just like when I heard the call about the Lake View. That’s when I realized what was going on.”
“You did?” Since I was pretty sure the police call hadn’t said anything about Pepper Martin’s ability to talk to the dead, I couldn’t help but wonder what Quinn was getting at. “Do you mean-”
“I mean that’s when it finally hit me. When I thought something might have happened to you and I felt my stomach go cold and I realized that if you weren’t in my life… well, things just wouldn’t be the same. That’s when I knew it, Pepper. That’s when I knew I loved you.”
“You… love…” They were words I never thought I’d hear from Quinn, and now that I had, I could barely process the enormity of what he was saying. “Are you telling me-”
“I’m telling you that though I might want to spend my life with you, I don’t want to spend it worrying. I hate it that you’re putting yourself in danger. What would happen if next time-”
“There won’t be a next time. Cross my heart.” Yeah, it was the easy way out, but it was better to promise than it was to risk ruining the perfect, fairy-tale moment.
Good thing Quinn dragged me behind a nearby van where nobody could see us. He was so busy kissing me, he didn’t notice that behind my back, my fingers were crossed.
Team One’s section was beautiful. Every headstone in it had been carefully cleaned, and each and every one sparkled in the morning sunlight. The stone paths were pristine. I swear, the white flowers they’d planted in two huge urns bordering the entrance to the section came right off the cover of a Martha Stewart Living magazine.
It was impressive.
I was bummed.
“Hey, cheer up.” Absalom poked me in the ribs. We were standing on the sidelines watching the final judging, and with the camera rolling, he had to keep his voice down. “They got big bucks on their side, but no way they have our style.”
He was trying to make me feel better, so I smiled even though I didn’t feel like it.
After the points we’d scored for our bachelor auction, we were ten points behind Team One in the competition. Had their gorgeous landscaping sealed the deal and left us runners-up? We were about to find out.
When the judge from the art museum stepped forward, I held my breath.
“It’s all very lovely,” she said. “The lines are clean and pleasing. The flowers are cheery without being disrespectful. My fellow judges and I… we’re awarding Team One ten points.”
“Ten?” I groaned. “That means we’re twenty behind. We’re never going to catch up. Not twenty points.”
“Hey, team captain!” Reggie slapped me on the back. “You’re the one who usually gives the rah-rah speeches. Don’t lose faith now.”
I wished I could be so optimistic.
When Greer ordered us to get moving, we tromped over to our section. The judge’s words whirled through my head and for the first time since we’d planted our flowers, I second-guessed our color scheme. Our team had decided to honor Sammi with our plantings, and since we figured he had as much right to put in his two cents as anyone else, we consulted Virgil. He’d come up with the perfect plan, and he’d even chipped in to buy gigantic new flowerpots, too. They stood at the entrance to our section, jam-packed with flowers in Wonder Bread colors-red, yellow, white, and blue.
I guess the judges got the message, because as they neared our section, they stopped and took a careful look around. The guy from the Art Institute went a little pale.
When they were done with the flowers, they checked out our little fountain (we’d had a problem with the pump, and it wasn’t flowing as much as it was belching), and the bench we’d put nearby that we hadn’t been able to get perfectly level, no matter how hard we tried. They walked up and down the rows of headstones, stopping, checking, scratching comments in their notebooks. When they were done, they put their heads together and talked for so long, I thought I was going to burst from anticipation. Finally, the lady from the art museum stepped forward. Absalom was on one side of me, Delmar was on the other. I grabbed both their hands and held on for dear life.
“Well!” The art museum lady laughed, uncomfortable. “This section certainly isn’t restored as perfectly as Team One’s.” I stifled a curse. “But…”
The single word gave me hope. I tightened my hold on Absalom and Delmar.
“This section has a certain panache that demonstrates something the other section didn’t. Yes, cemeteries are places where we honor our dead. But they are also places where we celebrate the lives of the people who’ve gone before us. This section certainly shows that aspect of celebration. We’re awarding Team Two twenty points.”
“Twenty!” We whooped and hollered.
That is, until I did the math.
“We’re tied,” I said, and I knew that Team One realized it, too. That’s why they were throwing death-ray looks our way.
“The final points will be awarded once the Monroe Street volunteers arrive,” the art museum lady said. “That’s when the fundraising money will be turned over to them. The team that raised the most money will be our winner.”
“Cut!” Greer yelled, and while everyone scrambled around, getting ready for the next shot, my team and I gave each other high fives.
Oh yeah, we knew what was about to happen. We were about to be declared Cemetery Survivor winners.
In honor of the moment, I stepped aside to refresh my lipstick and check my hair. I’d just put my mirror back in my purse when Bianca walked over.
She reached into her own purse and pulled out a business card. “I took the liberty of having these made. I hope you don’t mind.”
The card was printed on heavy stock, the font was elegant, but not over-the-top. Under the distinctive La Mode logo, it said:
PEPPER MARTIN, FASHION CONSULTANT
I caught my breath. “Does this mean… You’re asking me to… You want me to… The offer’s still open?”
She laughed, the sound of it as sweet and soothing as our fountain was supposed to be. “Of course. That is…” Bianca lowered her voice. “It could be yours, Pepper. If things work out the way they should.”
I was puzzled. “If things work out? You’re not talking about-”
“The contest, of course.” She smiled at me the way she’d smiled from the covers of so many magazines. “If Team One gets that final twenty-five points-”
“But there’s no way. It’s based on how much money each team brought in, and you know we raised more than you did. You’re not asking me to-”
“No one will know.” Her smile stayed firmly in place. “A few hundred dollars, who would miss it? And if anyone does… well… just look at your team.” She did, and I looked over their way, too. They were eager for the next scene to shoot. This was their big moment and even Crazy Jake’s expression shone with pride. “No one would be the least bit surprised if there was money missing.”
I weighed what she said against the beautiful business card in my hands.
Pepper Martin, Fashion Consultant.
I tore the card in half, gave the pieces to Bianca, and walked away.
“Congratulations.” I wasn’t surprised to see Quinn at the cemetery for the big announcement. Ever since that night at the car lot when he finally spoke those three little oh-so-wonderful words, we’d been pretty much inseparable. I mean, when he wasn’t out catching bad guys and I wasn’t finishing up the restoration and winning Cemetery Survivor.
I’d like to say he looked happy about our victory, but truth be told, he looked sort of nervous. It was unlike him, and it was contagious. The smile vanished from my face, and I excused myself from where my team and I were celebrating our victory and ducked behind the moldy mausoleum.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Not a thing.” He poked his hands in his pockets.
Quinn never puts his hands in his pockets.
I eyed him carefully. “Then why do you look like you just swallowed a frog?”
His mouth thinned. “I do not-”
“You do. You’re supposed to be happy for me.”
“Then you might try smiling.”
He did. It didn’t last long. “Look… I’ve been thinking. About everything that happened. Bad Dog Raphael, and Bud the hit man, and about how your art show was vandalized, and-”
“It’s cool, isn’t it?” It was, and I laughed. “Everything’s tied up in a neat little package. Everything is explained. You think you’ll convict them?”
We were back on solid ground; there’s nothing a cop likes better than facts. “We found Vera Blaine’s locket in Raphael’s house. The sick bastard kept it as a souvenir,” Quinn said. This was news, and I was as glad to hear it as I was happy about the rest of what he had to say.
“Bud is more than willing to squeal on Raphael, Raphael is more than willing to squeal on Kowalski, and Kowalski is willing to give them both up in exchange for some consideration from the prosecutor.”
“So all’s well that ends well.” I knew it was; when I got to Monroe Street that morning, I saw Jefferson Lamar watching and smiling as Helen brought him a bouquet of flowers. “So why are you looking so glum?”
“I’m not glum. I’m pissed. The more I’ve talked to Mad Dog and Bud and…” Quinn scraped a hand through his hair. “The more I hear from them, the more I think…” He let out a sigh of epic proportions. “It’s the same old, same old, Pepper. You sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong and putting yourself in danger. You were up in that damned car, and Raphael was waving a gun at you! And I thought things were different between us these days.”
“They were. They are!”
“Yeah, well, different doesn’t explain why you keep getting involved in these things. In fact, it only makes it worse. I told you I loved you. And you-”
“You know I feel the same way.” I wasn’t sure where this conversation was headed, but something told me I wasn’t going to like the destination when we arrived. I took a quick step toward Quinn. “I’m sorry that you keep worrying about me, but you shouldn’t. I can take care of myself.”
“That’s not what’s bugging me. I don’t understand what’s going on, and I don’t like the feeling. Why do you keep getting yourself into these situations? How does it happen? I want an explanation, Pepper. I need one. I think I deserve one.”
He was right, and I knew it.
Now that the moment had come for me to explain what I thought I’d never tell him, my stomach got queasy, and my voice wobbled over the words. “I hit my head back at Garden View,” I said, giving him the Reader’s Digest condensed version. “After that… well…” I was losing my nerve-fast-and I couldn’t let that happen. Before I could change my mind, I blurted everything out.
“I see dead people,” I told him. “They come to me because they can’t cross over to the Other Side without my help. So that’s what I do. I help them solve their murders. Or I help clear their names, like I did for Jefferson Lamar, and that’s why I get involved in all these things, and it’s not like it was my idea, but they’re going to haunt me if I don’t, so I might as well, you know?”
I froze, waiting for his response. It didn’t take long.
Quinn walked over, put his hands on my shoulders, and kissed me quick. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” he said.
“‘Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?’” He’d already moved away, and I went after him. “I just told you the biggest secret of my life, and all you have to say is maybe I’ll see you around sometime? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about how if you’re not going to tell me the truth… if you’re going to hand me some story about how you commune with the dead-”
“It’s true. I do!”
“Yeah. Right. Good-bye, Pepper.” Quinn’s shoulders were rigid when he walked out of my life.
I don’t know how long I stood there, torn between running after him and crawling into that hole in the mausoleum floor and never coming out again. I only know that after a while, my team came over to find me.
They closed in on me so fast, I barely had time to wipe the tears off my cheeks.
“We’ve got something for you,” Absalom said, and handed me a picture. It was a publicity shot taken not long after the competition started, and it showed me standing near the Monroe Street entrance with my entire team. It said “Thank You” across the bottom in artsy graffiti-like lettering.
“I should be thanking all of you,” I managed to choke out the words.
“Hey, don’t get all emotional!” Absalom patted me on the back. “And get back over near the fountain. Ella brought over a bottle of champagne. We’re going to celebrate!”
They hurried off. Crazy Jake hung back. “I have a special present for you,” he said, and he shoved something in my hands and followed the rest of my team.
It was kind of hard to see what it was, with the tears in my eyes and all, but I looked down at the black and white photograph Jake had handed me.
The picture had been taken the night of our bachelor auction. There I was, breaking all the rules, standing next to the statue of President Garfield inside his memorial.
I wasn’t alone.
There on my right was the statue of the President at the center of the rotunda. There was me. There on my left…
On my left was the misty image and I’d bet anything that Jake thought it was nothing more than a reflection.
I knew better. I saw an imposing man with a beard. And I wondered what Jake would say if he knew he’d taken a picture of the ghost of President James A. Garfield.
It took a while for my paperwork to be approved, and that meant I had time to fret and worry and second-guess myself.
I did a pretty good job of it.
But then, it’s not like I had a lot of other things to think about. We wrapped up Cemetery Survivor, and I was back at work at Garden View, and there was no sign of a presidential ghost or any other restless spirits. I didn’t have my team to keep me company, and I was sleeping alone. What else did I have to occupy my time?
Remember that old saying I’ve mentioned before? The one about being careful what you wish for? I guess it pretty much came true. I was leaving for the airport when I found a bouquet of flowers outside the door of my apartment. Like anyone can blame me for thinking-for one, brief, shining moment, anyway-that they came from Quinn?
No such luck. No sign of Quinn, and no sign of a signature on the card that came with the flowers, either. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t a message:
No TV show. I’ll have to watch you in person.
“Creepy.” On my way to my car, I took both the card and the flowers down to the Dumpster in back of my apartment building, and if I hadn’t been avoiding thinking about what I’d been avoiding thinking about for as long as I could remember, I might have convinced myself that the flowers were a fluke.
The case was wrapped up, and thanks to the careful questioning of the police (not to mention the fact that he was hoping to get a little something back in exchange for any information he gave the cops), Mad Dog had admitted that he’d sent that mugger after me and that the same man-Bud-was the one who came after me at the Lake View and killed Sammi instead.
But he’d never said a word about flowers.
Like a scene in a cheesy movie, my memories flashed over everything that had happened that summer: the flowers, the lipstick, the cheap chocolates.
“If it all didn’t have something to do with the case…” I murmured to myself, and a slow chill shimmied up my back. Like anybody could blame me for glancing over my shoulder?
Thankfully, there was nobody around, but that didn’t stop me from getting in my car as fast as I could, and from locking the doors once I was in there.
I gripped the steering wheel and let my brain follow the logical progression.
“If the flowers are still coming, they had nothing to do with your case. If they had nothing to do with your case, that means somebody you don’t know about is sending them. And that means…” I swallowed hard. “Stalker?”
Even though I wasn’t looking forward to where I was going, I was grateful to be getting out of town.
When I finally arrived at my destination and parked my rental car, I was far from home, and I wasn’t thinking about my stalker any longer. That didn’t keep my heart from beating double time. I blamed it on the altitude. It was better than admitting I was nervous.
I’d taken a flight to Colorado and driven from the Denver airport with a voodoo doll on my front seat next to me. I gave the doll a pat for luck, got out of the car, and went inside the prison to visit my dad.