That’s my new working title for this. I dunno if I’m going to keep it or not. This is something I’m messing around with and thinking of serializing here. If you like it, go buy one of my other books, or join my Patreon.
“So you’re a medium?” The large man asked me in the tone of voice usually reserved for the mentally ill or the tragically stupid. I wasn’t sure which one he thought I was, but I had a pretty good guess. “That means you talk to dead people?”
“Sheriff Dunleavy,” I replied, working very hard to keep a civil tongue in my mouth and remember that my mama raised me to be a lady. “I’m Southern. We all talk to dead people down here. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe I can truly trust anybody that doesn’t speak to at least two or three dead relations on a daily basis. The difference is, they talk back to me.”
Jeff Mitchum, one of the deputies, piped up. “She’s right, Sheriff. Miss Lila Grace can find things you thought was lost forever, and tell you if your wife is fooling around on you, and all sorts of things she ought not to know.”
I sighed a little bit. I knew Jeff was trying to help, but he never was the sharpest knife in the drawer and I could tell from the look on Sheriff Dunleavy’s mustached face that Jeff’s endorsement had most of the opposite effect the poor deputy was hoping for.
“Thank you, Jeff, I said, setting my purse down in the one chair in the waiting area of the Union County Sheriff’s Department. I stepped up to the counter, resting my elbows on the chipped and stained formica surface. “Jeffrey, darling, it is powerful hot out there today. Would you be a dear and get me a glass of ice water?” I pulled a Kleenex out from the sleeve where I had it tucked away and dabbed at my forehead.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeff said, hopping up from his ancient rolling chair and walking back behind the four desks that made up the “bullpen” of the Sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Dunleavy remained exactly where he had been since I stepped into the building, leaning on the frame of his office door, one eyebrow climbing to where his hairline probably used to be. “I can’t get Mitchum to move that fast when a call comes in, much less to run fetch me stuff. Maybe you do have super-powers.” He gave me one of those little half-smiles men get when they think they’re being clever.
“Maybe I taught that child Sunday School every week for six years and brought him up to respect his elders,” I replied with an arched eyebrow of my own. We stood there for a minute staring, neither one of us saying a word, ’til finally Dunleavy cracked.
“Well, what is it?” He asked.
“What is what, Sheriff?”
“What do you want, Ms. Carter? I have a department to run, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I noticed, all right, Sheriff. I notice all the people clamoring for attention for their complaints.” I gestured at the empty waiting room. “I notice all those cars in the parking lot.” I pointed out the glass door where three police cruisers and my well-loved 1986 GMC Sierra pickup sat alone in a parking lot built for thirty or more. “And I certainly notice the preponderance of victims you are consoling right there in your very office.”
I never blinked. I just looked at him. After a minute or so, Jeffrey returned with my ice water. “Thank you, Jeffrey. I appreciate that. Now, may I come in, Sheriff, or are you going to stand there and be stubborn while my talent and news go to waste?”
Dunleavy sighed a huge sigh. But I suspected everything this man did was huge. He stood about six and a half feet tall, and was a fit man, rare in law enforcement down here. Too much rich food and front porch sitting for a man to keep himself trim much past twenty years old.
“Please come in, Mrs. Carter,” he said, walking ahead of me into his office. I followed him into his office, which was almost completely unchanged from how it looked when Dunleavy’s predecessor, Sheriff Johnny Thomas held court in the room. The pictures on the wall were different, shots of Dunleavy in a tailored suit shaking hands with various smiling important-looking people from his last job, Chicago if I recalled correctly. A light dusting of Sheriff Johnny’s cigar smoke still coated everything else, especially the padded high-back rolling chair behind the desk and the surface of the desk itself. The computer was new, one of those big all-in-one jobs, and looked out of place in the cramped room, like a spaceship in a Sam Spade novel. I ran my fingers across the top of the monitor and took my seat in the wooden visitor’s chair nearest the desk.
Like most people who had been in the office more than once, I knew that the chair on the left was for normal people, and the chair on the right was the “lawyer chair.” Sheriff Johnny had his brother Red take the other visitor chair out one afternoon and shave a quarter-inch off one of the front legs so it never would sit quite right. Sheriff Johnny never had much tolerance for lawyers. But the Sheriff was gone now, succumbed to a heart attack in the middle of umpiring a softball game between the Baptists and the Methodists back in the spring. “Gone” of course is a relative term for me, since I saw Johnny clear as day standing in the corner of the office staring down at the newest occupant of his desk.
“Now, Mrs. Carter—“ Sheriff Dunleavy began, but I cut him off.
“Ms.” I corrected.
“Ms.,” I repeated. “I am not, nor have I ever been, married. And while I appreciate the flattery inherent in the idea, it has been some number of years since I felt reasonable answering to ‘miss.’ Therefore, please call me ‘ms.’ Or Lila Grace, if you tend toward the informal. I assure you I do not find the use of my given name offensive.”
“Okay, then Lila Grace, what can I do for you today?”
“I mostly wanted to call on you to introduce myself and determine to what degree we can work together.”
“Work together?” There went that eyebrow racing skyward again.
“Jeffrey explained to you that I was of some assistance to your predecessor on more than one occasion. I would hope to be able to continue that relationship with you.”
“You want to work with the police department?”
“Not work with, per se. I would simply like to be able to bring you information from time to time and know that it will be treated with respect, and not dismissed out of hand because of where it came from.”
“And where does your information come from, Ms. Carter?”
“From the dead, Sheriff. I thought we had covered that. I am a medium. I converse with the spirits of those who have passed on. They tell me things. Sometimes I need to pass those things along to you. I need to know whether or not you will believe what I tell you, or if I will need to pursue other avenues to satisfy the spirits.”
Sheriff Dunleavy’s eyes went cold and he leaned forward in his chair, putting his elbows on the desk. I thought for a moment I saw a hint of an old tattoo poking out from under his short sleeve dress shirt, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe the tip of an anchor? Was our new sheriff a Navy man? Rural South Carolina typically produced more Army men and Marines. Not many of our boys on boats.
His stern voice brought me out of my reverie. “Ms. Carter, I don’t know what kind of relationship you had with Sheriff Thomas, but this is my office now, and we will run things by the book. I will take any information you bring to me seriously, and I will investigate every lead in every case, but I will not have a civilian going around town on her own sticking her nose into police business. Are we clear?”
I looked up into the corner where Sheriff Johnny stood with his arms across his chest. He was grinning fit to beat the band, and I chuckled a little. I tried to hold it in, but I couldn’t.
Sheriff Dunleavy’s face and forehead flashed red, and I saw a little bead of sweat pop out at his temple. “Is something funny, Ms. Carter?”
“I’m sorry, Sheriff. It’s just that Sheriff Johnny is standing over in the corner behind you laughing his dead fool butt off.”
“What?” Dunleavy’s head whirled around, then he turned back to me, scowling.
“I’m sorry, but he’s there. He’s amused because this is very much like the first time I sat in this office and talked to him about a murder. He yelled at me, called me a crazy person and told me if I ever stuck my nose back in police business that he would have me arrested and shipped off to Bull Street for a psych evaluation.” I pointed at the corner where Sheriff Johnny was standing.
“So he’s in the corner of my office, just hanging out? What does he want?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t asked him yet. I figured since it’s your office now, I should deal with the current occupant before trying to communicate with any prior tenants that might be lingering past their expiration date, if you will.”
“Well, ask him,” Sheriff Dunleavy said, leaning back in his chair and folding his muscular arms across his broad chest. He did cut a fine figure of a man, if a little thin on top. If I were twenty years younger, I might have set my cap for him. As it was, I wondered if he might make a good match for Jane down at the Children’s Desk in the library.
I turned to Sheriff Johnny and said, “What do you want, Johnny? Why aren’t you back where you belong, watching soaps with Linda or doing whatever y’all do in the Great Beyond?” I’m sure Sheriff Dunleavy was disappointed that my conversing with the dead didn’t seem much different than me conversing with the living, but that’s how my life has always been.
Sheriff Johnny opened his mouth once or twice, but no sound came out. This happens with spirits after they’ve crossed over and come back, sometimes they forget how to talk. I had faith in the Sheriff, though. He hadn’t been dead more than four or five months. He should still be able to converse relatively easily.
“Go on, Johnny, spit it out. We ain’t got all day, now.”
“Trouble’s coming, Lila. I can’t see more than that, but something bad’s coming to Lockhart, and it’s gonna take both of y’all to deal with it.” Sheriff Johnny said, his voice hoarse with grave rust and thin like the wind.
I relayed his message to Sheriff Dunleavy, then looked back up at Johnny. “Now you know he’s just gonna say that’s what I would make up to have you say, so you gonna have to do something to prove that I’m not a fraud now, Johnny Thomas, or this man ain’t never gonna believe me.”
“Tell him the key is taped to the bottom of the middle drawer.” The shade said, then turned and walked through the wall out into the sunlight.
“Wait, Johnny, I don’t know what key you’re talking about!” I stood up and hollered as the ghost vanished. “Dammit. Excuse me,” I said as I sat back down.
“What key?” the sheriff asked.
“Exactly my point,” I grumbled. I reached down to the floor and picked up my purse. I stood up and extended my hand. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, Sheriff Dunleavy. It’s obvious that you don’t believe in my gift, so I will take my leave.”
The sheriff stayed seated. “What key, Ms. Carter?”
“I don’t know, Sheriff. That’s what’s so damn frustrating about dealing with dead people. They tell you half what you need to know, then wander off and go back to being dead. It’s worse than dating, I swear to God.”
“What did he say about the key?” Sheriff Dunleavy’s voice was calm, but he was working to keep it that way. I could tell by the way his knuckles went white around the arm of his chair.
“He said it was underneath the middle desk drawer, whatever that means.” I replied.
“Sonofabitch!” Dunleavy sat up straight, then dropped out of his chair onto one knee and yanked out the center drawer of his desk. I sat back down in my chair as he felt around the bottom of the drawer, then got down on his hands and knees and vanished behind his desk. He emerged a moment later with a brown envelope clutched in his fist. “Got it!”
He sat back in his chair and ripped open the top of the envelope. A small brass key fell out onto his calendar desk blotter, and he pounced on it like a kitten playing with a junebug.
“What’s that, Sheriff?”
“This is the key to Sheriff Thomas’s file cabinet, Ms. Carter. He had one copy on him when he…”
“Died is the word you’re looking for, Sheriff. Remember, I still get to talk to people after they die, so it’s not quite the hardship for me that it is for most people.”
“Yes, well, he had one copy on him when he died, but those keys were lost after the autopsy. And I’ve had no access to any old case files, or even his current case files, since I got here last week.”
“Until now,” I said.
“Until now,” he agreed.
“When the sheriff’s ghost told me where to find it.”
“When you used some resources unavailable to most people to assist me in finding it,” the sheriff agreed, nodding in unison with me.
“So we have an understanding?” I asked, standing and holding out my hand.
Sheriff Dunleavy stood up and shook my hand. “Ms. Carter, I’m not sure what we’ve got, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never understand a minute of it.”