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.