Sheriff Dunleavy leaned back in his chair and looked at me, one of those long, steady looks that men do when they think they’re being all serious, but really all they’re doing is trying to figure out what box to put you in now that you have done escaped the one they thought you were supposed to fit into all nice and neat. I’ve known men like him all my life, and it’s better to just let them sit and “process things” and figure out what they’re going to say, then go on about your business and do things the way you intended to do them in the first place, rather than getting your blood pressure up fighting them over it.
“Ms. Carter, I don’t know what help you can be, but I don’t have a whole lot to go on with this case, and I don’t know anybody in this town, and Jeff, bless his heart, just ain’t as much help as I’d like for him to be. So while I’m not sure I believe you can do everything you say you can do, I think it’s gonna be a whole lot better for me to have you working with me instead of out on your own getting in my way.”
“Well, Sheriff, that’s certainly one way of looking at it, and since it gets me right to where I want to be, which is working on this case, I don’t expect I’m going to argue with you about it. Now what can you tell me that the child hasn’t been able to tell me herself?”
“I don’t know what the victim has told you—“
“Jenny,” I interrupted.
“Her name is Jenny, and she is a girl. She is not ‘the victim’ or ‘the girl’ or ‘the body.’ She is Jenny, and I will remind you that she is still sitting right here and can hear every word. She is dead, and she is a ghost, but she is also still a little girl who is scared at what is going to happen next, and angry that she won’t go to the prom, or graduate high school, or get married, or have a baby, or grandbabies, or any of the things that she was supposed to do. So she will be treated with respect, and not referred to as ‘the victim.’ Do we have an understanding?” I might have slipped into my Sunday School Teacher voice, the one I used on Kacey Swicegood all those years when he was trying to be distracting while I was teaching the story of the loaves and fishes.
Sheriff Dunleavy looked appropriately chastened, although I don’t know if it was because of what I said, or if I just made him remember his own mama reading him out for talking ugly when he was a child. He nodded, then went on. “Like I was saying, I don’t know what Jenny has told you, but we know very little about this case. The…she came home from the football game, apparently went to basement for some reason, and apparently fell down the stairs.”
“You say ‘for some reason,’” I said. “Does that mean the power was on when y’all found her?”
“Well, yes ma’am, when we got the call Saturday morning the power was on and there were no blackouts the night before that got called in, so we didn’t have any reason to think the power was ever out. But that would explain her going down to the basement when there was no one else in the house.”
“What about her flashlight? Did she have a flashlight with her?” I asked. Jenny nodded for me to go on, but stayed silent.
Dunleavy looked at me, then picked up a folder from his desk and took some glossy pictures out of it. He spread the crime scene photos out on his desk and started looking through them. “I don’t see a flashlight in these pictures. The basement’s not the cleanest place I’ve ever seen, but there’s not much clutter,” he said.
“There it is,” Jenny said, pointing to one of the pictures. “On that shelf by the freezer. That’s my flashlight. But how did it get all the way over there?”
“What do you mean, sweetie,” I asked, then I saw where she was pointing. On the shelf over their big freezer, the one her daddy probably put a deer in every winter, sat a bright shiny flashlight, without a speck of dust on it. I could see in the photo how much it stood out on the shelf.
“Sheriff,” I said. “Jenny said that’s the flashlight she was carrying when she went down the steps,” I said. “We need to find out who moved it.”
“Yep, because if she had it in her hand when she was pushed, somehow I doubt it flew ten feet across the basement and just happened to land perfectly on that shelf,” Dunleavy agreed. “I’ll get Jeff to go over there and bag it, then we can bring it back over here and dust it for prints.”
“You might want to have him dust the fuse box while he’s over there,” I suggested.
“That makes sense. If Jenny’s telling you the power was out…”
“What’s the matter, Sheriff?” I asked.
“I’m talking like I believe this is all really happening, which I reckon I do, since I’m sending a deputy over to re-open a crime scene based on either the say-so of a ghost, or the say-so of a crazy woman. It’s just going to take me a minute or two to adjust to my new reality, I think.”
“Welcome to my world, Sheriff. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of room on the crazy train.”
“Lila Grace, did you just make an Ozzy Osbourne reference?” Sheriff Dunleavy asked me.
“I’m hardcore, Sheriff,” I replied. “Didn’t they tell you I worship the devil and bite the heads off live bats?”
“Oh, people tried to warn me, alright, but believe me, their warnings could not hold a candle to the reality,” he said.
“I’m so glad I could help,” I said with a smile, then returned my attention to the crime scene photos. Sheriff Dunleavy called Jeff on the radio while I perused the photos and sent him over to the Miller house to collect the flashlight and dust the fuse box. He also instructed the young officer to take pictures of the stairs, regardless of the fact that a dozen people had trooped through their in the days since Jenny’s death.
The scene in the photos was pretty normal for a basement, even as peculiar as a house with a basement was for Lockhart, South Carolina. The only reason I could think they would have it is the slope the house sat on made for a whole lot of usable space along the back of the house, so somebody put walls around it and called it a basement. There were some shelves with the kind of junk people usually put on their garage or crawlspace – old sports equipment, lawn furniture that’s out of season or too worn out for use except when the in-laws come over and every single chair that can come out into the yard already has a behind in it, some old cans of paint, a seed spreader, a wheelbarrow with a flat tire, and a dead teenage girl.
Jenny stood looking over my shoulder, silent after telling us about the flashlight. I didn’t say anything to the child, just let her look. Sometimes the dead need to see themselves lying there to really understand their new place in the world, or lack thereof. I looked up at the girl, and her face was sad, but determined.
“Are you alright, sweetie?” I asked after a minute.
“I’m fine. It just took me a minute to get my head wrapped around the fact that was me laying there. Did my mama or my daddy find me?”
I looked at Sheriff Dunleavy, then when he didn’t answer I remembered that he couldn’t hear the girl. “Who found her, Sheriff? Was it her mother or her father?”
The sheriff opened another manila folder on his desk and pulled out a pink sheet of a multi-part form. “It says here that the father discovered the…found her.” He caught himself before he called her “the body,” and I appreciated it.
“That’s good,” Jenny said. “Mama wouldn’t have been able to handle that. I mean, I’m sure it was bad for Daddy, too. But Mama would have just been tore all to pieces.”
“I’m sure she was that anyhow, darling,” I said. “A parent ain’t supposed to have to bury their child. It’s about the worst thing I can imagine.”
“You never had any kids, did you Ms. Carter?” Jenny asked, all of the melancholy of death forgotten in the irrepressible curiosity of the teenager.
“No, honey, I never married. I guess children just weren’t in the cards for me,” I said. I pushed all thoughts of a young man with glasses and a trim beard driving out of town in a fast car to the back of my head. This was not the time to dwell on old hurts or regrets. This was the time to find out who pushed that child down a flight of stairs.
“I can’t see anything out of place or unusual, Jenny,” I said, motioning to the pictures. “Can you?”
She leaned in closer, her body passing through my shoulder. I felt all the hair on my right arm stand up in goosebumps at her touch, like a goose didn’t just walk over my grave, but stopped and decided to tap dance on it for a little while. After several long seconds, she straightened up, and I rubbed some warmth back into my arm.
“No ma’am, I don’t see anything different. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the basement, though, so I might not know it if I saw it.” She looked disappointed, like she had been hoping the killer wrote his name in the dust at her feet or something.
“She didn’t see anything else out of place, Sheriff,” I reported. “What else do you have that we can look at?”
“I don’t have any more photos, unless you want to look at the autopsy?” He looked from my face to over my right shoulder, where Jenny stood. I thought for a moment that the good Sheriff could see her, then I remembered that I looked up at her whenever I talked to her, so he could easily figure out where she was from watching me.
“I don’t think will be necessary,” I said. I had no interest in seeing pictures of this sweet child all cut up, and wouldn’t be able to get any information that way anyway. I was no kind of doctor. All I’d get from seeing pictures of an autopsy would be nauseated.
“Good,” Sheriff Dunleavy said. “The findings were consistent with a fall down the steps, but the coroner was surprised to see that there were no bruises on the knees or hands. That made him think that she might have been pushed, because a person falling would naturally put their hands out to break their fall.”
“And most people who fall down the steps don’t land on their head,” I said.
“That’s right,” the sheriff agreed. “If it had been a normal fall, her legs and the rest of her would have been all bruised up. She wasn’t, just her head and a broken neck. Then when I saw you at the scene, I knew life was about to get a whole lot more complicated.”
“I am sorry about that, Sheriff. I would very much like for your life to be as simple as possible. Because when your life is simple, it means that my life is boring. And I like a boring life. I like to go to church on Sunday and on Wednesday nights. I like to go to the farmer’s market on Saturday and buy my vegetables. I like to read the newspaper every morning while I eat my oatmeal with strawberries cut up in it and just a little bit of brown sugar to make me feel decadent. I like boring, Sheriff. So I truly am sorry that I am complicating your life, but this poor child showed up on my doorstep crying her poor dead eyes out, and I couldn’t very well turn her away.”
“No, I reckon you couldn’t, at that. Well, right now I’ve got Jeff going out to pick up the flashlight, so do you have any supernatural advice as to our next step?”
I didn’t get the chance to answer, because as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, the woman who was painting her nails at the reception desk when we walked by rushed in, her mouth open wide. “Sheriff, you got to come quick,” she panted.
“What’s wrong, Ethel?” the sheriff asked.
“We just got a 911 call come in. There’s another dead girl.”