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.