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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 wasnt 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. Thats why he wasnt 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 wouldnt 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. Ive got work to do. If youre 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.

Thats 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 didnt explain why I took another step closer. You know who I am?

Hed 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 didnt laugh. He was obviously the no-nonsense type, so in a no-nonsense way, I explained. Im standing here talking to you, right? Obviously I have the Gift. I wouldnt be able to see you if I didnt.

Of course. He smoothed a hand over his tie. It was plain, and black, and boring.

Pretty much like this conversation.

I didnt 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 didnt want to just disappear and have her think I was a flake. If theres something you want to talk about

I do. He hauled in a breath. And they tell me youre the only one who can help.

But you dont believe it because what? Because Im a girl? Because Im too young? Because Ive got fashion sense and you think that means I dont have a brain? If youve heard I have the Gift, you also know-

Youre 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 whod died back in the seventies. Solving Guss 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? Its been a long time.

Thats 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. Ive learned not to trust the criminal element, and I didnt want to listen to him. But I didnt 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. Its 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 isnt that. He dismissed the idea instantly. I wasnt murdered. I had a heart attack. I died of natural causes, completely natural causes.

So its the whole cherry pie, missing necklace, runaway boyfriend routine again? I made a face. Like I told all those other ghosts, I cant be bothered. Ive got a Gift, remember. Its 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! Id already groaned when I realized Lamar didnt 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, youd 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 Id be pissed, right? He said Id pop like the cork in a bottle of Asti. Id 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 isnt always right, I said, daring Lamar to contradict me. Not about everything.

Im sorry. About your father, I mean. But really, Miss Martin, if youd consider it logically, youd 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, isnt 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 theyll be open to learning useful skills, and once we send them outside prison walls, theyll 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 arent just productive, theyre 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 hed just said.

Hold on! I held up a hand to stop him, even though Lamar wasnt about to say anything else. First you criticize Gus. Then you talk up the benefits of prison. And you committed a murder.

I didnt 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 wasnt as solid looking anymore, and just as suddenly, I realized what I was sensing from this ghost wasnt hesitancy or shyness. He was embarrassed to be rolled up in the same criminal-element ball with the likes of Gus Scarpetti.

So, you werent 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 didnt do it, he said. His voice was as steely as the look that flared in his eyes. I was framed. I dont know by who.

And thats what you want me to find out. As epiphanies went, this wasnt 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 Lamars mouth? Maybe it was really just the beginnings of a sneer, because the next moment, thats exactly what he did. Im afraid even that amount of irony wasnt enough for the universe, he said. Not in my case. I wasnt a police officer, you see, Miss Martin. I was a prison warden.

Wow. There wasnt 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 dont think it, young lady. I know it. And youre going to prove it. Youre 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 Ellas voice and took pity on her. Even sensibly low-heeled Earth Shoes werent enough to get a middle-aged, slightly overweight woman through the double-whammy of overgrown landscaping and tumbled headstones.

Im over here, Ella! I called to her and turned in the direction where I heard branches snapping and Ellas labored breathing.

Youll help me?

Lamars question brought me spinning back around, but I didnt have a chance to answer. Right before I was going to-though I didnt 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 youd been gone too long, and then when you didnt 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.

Ellas expression cleared. Isnt that just like you, taking the time to do that! I knew thats what happened. I told Jim. I told him, I bet Pepper just cant wait.

Thats it! I made a broad gesture that included the entire section where we were standing. Im 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. Its just perfect.

Appreciation glowed in her eyes. Ill make sure you get this section to work on for the restoration, she said. I like it, too. Its so peaceful.

She mustnt have heard the hip hop music.

But well have time for all that later. She latched onto my arm. Its 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, its all part of what I didnt have time to tell you earlier. The whole thing is going to be filmed, you see. The restoration project, I mean. Theyre making a documentary. And then when Jim told me hed 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 didnt 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. Hed 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 didnt 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.

Ill make sure thats 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. Weve 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. Isnt 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.

Were bound to create a sensation with this, Ella said, leading the way back toward the tent/office. Were going to get some great publicity in the cemetery publications, not to mention the news shows. Theres already talk of Dateline coming in to do a piece.

I was liking the sound of this more and more. By the time wed 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 Im 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. Whos 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 hadnt 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?

Ill look into it.

Say what? Greer turned eyes the color of a porpoise my way. Youll look into it? Into what? Into telling me where we need to start filming? I dont think so. Her voice was singsongy. Lets get one thing straight from the start: I dont mess around. Thats not what gets a producer noticed. So were not going to waste precious minutes, or precious daylight, or precious brain cells. Not my precious brain cells, anyway.

You promise? Lamars question overlapped with Greers whining so I didnt have a chance to answer.

He wasnt about to let me off so easy. And youll find out Im really innocent, wont you?

Were 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 dont you- I turned toward Greer who obviously didnt like to be told what to do. Maybe thats part of a producers job description. I cant say, seeing that Id 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 dont you get your cameras or your camera crew or whatever out of your truck, I told her. Im going to get together with the team here and plan a little strategy. By the time youre back, well be ready to roll.

Two minutes with this babe and already I knew she wasnt going to like it when I was right. And lets face it, Im 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. Whats the plan?

Well, there isnt one. Not really. The only plan is that you act naturally and do what you need to do. Thats the whole point, isnt it? Ella wound a finger through the beads around her neck. Its 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, Id better start acting like it. For the TV cameras and so that Bianca would know I had what it took to be management material. Im thinking when they start filming, my team should be on its way over to that section where were going to work, I said, waving Mae Tannager and the rest of them over. That will show how organized we are, right? Itll 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 youve 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 Maes the captain, she said in a harsh whisper. Maes always in charge of whatever committee shes on.

Oh. Of course. It wasnt fair, but I understood. Mae had the bucks, and money talks. Im just a team member, but Im 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 didnt 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. Wasnt going to risk it again.

I jumped back.

Do you promise youll 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 isnt your team, she said.

Huh? It wasnt brilliant, but it was succinct. Are you telling me-

That this is Maes team. Theyll get along fine without your guidance. Theyre Team Number One. Youll be captain of Team Number Two.

And Team Number Two..? I looked around. There wasnt anyone else in sight.

Theyll 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.



| Dead Man Talking | c