This is the latest chapter of a new novel that I’m serializing here. I release a new chapter every Monday. If you need to catch up, you can CLICK HERE.
I walked over to the ghost and tried to speak to her without it being obvious to the dozen people standing behind the police cordon a dozen yards away that I was talking to empty air. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that I have somewhat mastered over the years.
“What’s wrong, sweetie? You look like somebody just ran over your dog.” I realized as soon as the words crossed my lips that it wasn’t the most polite way of talking to a dead child who just found out that her best friend is dead, too. But there aren’t any instruction manuals for my kind of life, and I couldn’t take it back, so I just had to roll with it.
“Where’s Shelly?” Jenny asked, glowing tears rolling down her face. This was a new one on me. I’d seen ghosts angry, and sad, and even seen a couple of them scared of what was coming next, but I’d never seen one cry before. But here she was, sobbing just like you’d expect a girl whose best friend’s car just got pulled out of a lake to do. Her tears weren’t solid, of course, but they were part of her, a little tiny piece of Jenny’s soul cascading down her cheeks, cutting little trails of faintly glowing light across her shimmering visage.
“What do you mean, where’s Shelly?” I asked. I didn’t want to come off as crass and say that she was on the stretcher being loaded into the back of the ambulance, where do you think she is, you idiot, but that’s kinda what I was thinking.
“I don’t see her. I could see Sheriff Johnny, and I’ve seen a couple of other ghosts as I’ve been walking through town since I…since we first met. But I don’t see Shelly. Where is she?”
I looked around. The child had a good point. I didn’t see Shelly, either. Far as I could tell, Jenny was the only ghost at John D. Long Lake, and I was powerful glad of that. I didn’t relish the idea of telling Shelly that she was dead, especially if it had happened as recently as I expected it had. And worse than that, I sure didn’t want to run into the poor Smith children if they happened to be lingering all these years. I didn’t expect them to, not after all this time, but you never know. Some people have powerful attachments to places, and some people have powerful reasons for wanting to see justice done. None of that is normal for little kids, but there’s no hard and fast rules about the afterlife.
“I don’t see her, sweetie. Maybe she’s not here.”
“Why wouldn’t she be here? Where would she be?” Jenny was starting to get more upset, and her sadness was turning to anger, which was starting to stir up the rocks and dust around her feet. I stepped back and took a look around. We hadn’t drawn much attention yet, everybody was still focused on the macabre ceremony of loading poor Sherry’s body into the ambulance, but that ritual was almost complete, and we would be the most interesting thing by far in a minute or so.
“Jenny, I need you to calm down,” I said in my reassuring teacher voice. It’s different from the steely tone I used on Cracker earlier, but it still got through to the distraught child. A couple of pebbles dropped to the ground as she stopped rocking back and forth and focused on me.
“That’s good,” I said, keeping my voice low and calm. “Not everybody stays around after their bodies die, not even people who are killed or have a good reason to stay. It may be that Shelly didn’t have any great desire to see justice done for herself, or maybe she was just okay with moving on.”
“But…then why am I still here?” She looked up at me, more tears flowing down her face. She was calmer now, but the pain in her voice was heartbreaking.
“I don’t know, darlin’,” I said. “I have no idea what makes one person linger and one person pass on to the other side. If I did, I’d be able to help people move on a lot faster, I think.”
“Is that what you’re trying to do with me? Help me move on?”
“That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?” I asked. “You don’t want to stick around Lockhart dead forever, do you? I want to find out who killed you, so he or she doesn’t hurt anybody else, but I also want you to be able to go to your rest.”
“You mean Heaven,” the girl said with the firm conviction of a Protestant teenager that’s never questioned her faith for even one second.
I had no such convictions anymore, unfortunately. “I mean whatever you think I mean, honey. I think it’s probably a little different for everybody, and I’m pretty sure there’s not a lot of harps involved, but I know that whatever’s on the other side waiting for you, it’s a damn sight better than walking around talking to an old woman who’s going to get locked up in a room with padded walls if she keeps standing on the boat landing talking to thin air.”
Jenny smiled and sniffed. She was a cute little thing, even dead and weepy. “Thank you, Ms. Lila. I still don’t know why Shelly wouldn’t want to stick around and find her killer, but I reckon we can take care of that for her.”
“I expect we can,” I agreed. “Now let’s go see if the sheriff has any ideas on how we can do that.”
I walked back over to the car, where Sheriff Dunleavy had just raised the hood. I stuck my head under there beside him and said, “I think that’s the engine, Sheriff.”
“Thank you, Lila Grace. I’m no mechanic, but I think you’re right.”
“Is there anything in the engine that will tell us who killed this child?” I asked.
“Not that I can see,” he replied.
“Has anything been tampered with, like on the TV shows? Brake line cut, anything like that?”
He pointed to a square thing sitting on top of another thing. “That’s the master cylinder. It looks fine. I can’t see where anything was tampered with there.”
“Does that have anything to do with the brake lines?” I asked.
“You don’t know anything about cars, do you, Lila Grace?”
“I know where the gas goes in, I know to change the oil in my truck every five thousand miles, and I know to change my tires every three years. Anything past that, I ask Clyde. His nephew Brownie runs a service station and takes care of all my automotive needs.”
“Then why do you keep asking me about the brake lines?” the sheriff asked.
“On the TV shows, whenever two people poke their heads under the hood of a car that somebody died in, they always come out and say that the brake lines were cut. I just wanted to see if that happens in real life, too.”
“You watch too much NCIS, Lila Grace.”
“That may be, Sheriff, but I can’t help it. That Mark Harmon is just adorable. I like the New Orleans one, too. The LA show is okay, but I don’t like those actors as much. They’re too pretty.”
“Well, nobody cut any brake lines on this car,” the sheriff said, straightening up. I followed suit, and he slammed the hood down, motioning for Clyde to load the car onto his wrecker. “In fact, as far as I can see here, the car was in perfect working order before it went into the lake.”
“So why did it go into the lake?” I asked.
“Well, somebody wanted it to go into the lake. That’s why they drove it in there.”
“I reckon what we have to do next is find out who.”
“Yeah, that’s not the worst thing we have to do next.” I looked at the sheriff, and his face was grim.
“Oh,” I said, my voice soft. “Do you want me to go with you?”
“Do you have any particular connection with the family?”
“No,” I said. “I know them, but only to speak in the grocery store. We don’t go to church together, so I never had Shelly in any of my Sunday School or Vacation Bible School classes.”
“Then you’d better leave this to me. I don’t suppose she’s…” he waved a hand around in the air.
“No, she’s nowhere to be seen, Sheriff. I think she has already moved on.”
“Pity,” he said. “Maybe she could tell us something about the bastard that did this. Pardon my French.”
“Bastard isn’t French, Sheriff. Merde is French, and I won’t bruise if you cuss around me.”
“Just the same, I’ll try to keep it clean. Feels like cussing in front of my mama. Just ain’t natural.”
“I’m pretty sure your mama knows those words, too, Sheriff.”
“Oh, I can guarantee you she does. My daddy was a Marine. She’s heard them all.”
“Was a Marine? It was my understanding that you’re always a Marine.”
“He passed two years ago. That’s the only way you stop being a Marine, Ms. Carter. You stop being.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Sheriff. The loss of a parent is a hard thing to get over, no matter when it comes.”
“I reckon the loss of a child is, too,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make this the worst day of a couple parents’ life.”
“I’ll meet you at the station in the morning and we can talk about the fingerprints on that flashlight in Jenny’s basement and look for connections between these girls’ deaths.” I watched him walk to his car and throw his hat on passenger seat. I did not envy the big man his duties this afternoon.
“Do you think the same person that killed me killed Shelly?” Jenny asked. I didn’t hear her come up, but she only made noise if she tried to, or spoke.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two best friends in a town of less than ten thousand people wound up dead within five days of each other. Do you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Then let’s go back to your house. I need to talk to your mama and daddy. Without that son of a bitch preacher of yours looming over us.”