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.”