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 na"ivet'e 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.”