This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
The police station was full when I walked in behind the sheriff. Deputy Jeff was standing behind the small wooden counter that served to separate the small area with four desks where he, Ava the Dispatcher, and Victor, the other deputy, sat. Half a dozen people were milling around the counter, every one of them trying to talk to Jeff at one time.
Silence fell over the room when we entered, then it exploded into mayhem as everybody turned to Dunleavy all at once. I staggered back at the ruckus, almost walking right through Jenny. The girl was waiting in the truck for me when I walked out of Sharky’s, and rode to the station without a word. I reckon she was trying to process Shelly’s death, and trying to figure out why she was lingering while her friend moved on without her.
Sheriff Dunleavy held up his hands for quiet, and after a few seconds, the room settled down. “Now I know all y’all want to help, and I know everybody is anxious to share any information they have that might aid the investigation. But we ain’t but a couple of people here, so we are going to have to follow some kind of order here.
“I am going in to my office to consult with Ms. Carter here on some research she is doing for me on these investigations. I need all y’all to line up and give Jeff your information in an orderly fashion. Make sure he has your phone written on the statement, and we will follow up with y’all as we move forward. Thank you all for coming out, I appreciate your assistance and patience in this trying time.”
Sheriff Dunleavy put his hands down and bulled through the packed people. I followed along in his wake like a girl waterskiing behind a boat, and a minute later we were sitting in his office with the door closed. The noise from the front was down to a dull roar, so I reckoned Jeff had it under control.
“Now what was so damned important that you had to pry me away from some very important drinking and haul me back here?” Sheriff Dunleaby asked as he took a seat behind his desk.
“I was over at the Miller house—“
“What?” he interrupted.
“I was asking Jenny’s father some questions, and—“
“You were what?” he interrupted me again, and I turned my best Sunday School Teacher scowl on him.
“I was asking Jenny’s daddy if he had any idea who would want to hurt his daughter. Then her mama…” I stopped, because Sheriff Dunleavy’s face was getting some kind of red, and I was a little scared he was going to blow a gasket. “Are you okay, Sheriff?”
“No, Ms. Carter, I am not okay. You mean to tell me you went to talk to the parents of the victim in what has recently been determined to be a murder investigation without my permission, without any official authority, and without any accompaniment?”
“Well, when you put it like that, I reckon it sounds pretty awful. But yes, that’s what I did. He told me about a boy at school that may have had a grudge against Shelly for doing something nasty with his phone—“
“Ian Vernon,” the sheriff said. “I had Victor interview him this morning.”
“Oh, you knew about him? Good. Well, he also mentioned that we might want to talk to girls that—“
“—Didn’t make the cheerleading squad,” he finished my sentence for me. “We have interviews scheduled with all of them for tomorrow at school. Of course, in light of today’s events, we might have to postpone those.”
“If you know everything I’m going to say, why are having me say it?” I asked. I was a little perturbed at his attitude.
“Because I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to charge you with interfering with a police investigation, obstruction of justice, and impersonating a police officer.”
I stood up and put my hands on his desk. “What in the hell are you talking about, Sheriff? I was just trying to help you! All I did was talk to that poor man.”
“That, and get his wife so riled up she called over here and told me that if anybody from my department set foot on her property again without somebody calling 911, that she’d sue us so hard we’d be writing tickets out of the back of a used Chevette.” There was a little vein pulsing in his forehead, and his face was so red it was almost purple.
I sat back down, feeling like somebody had just let all the air out my sails. “Well…I’m sorry?”
Sheriff Dunleavy sat down and let out a huge breath. “You’re sorry?”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“That’s all you’ve got?”
“What more would you like me to say? That it was a mistake? Well, obviously it was. That I’m sorry I upset the Millers? Well, I certainly am. That I won’t do it again? I don’t know that I’m going to say that, Sheriff.”
“Oh, I reckon you are going to say that, Ms. Carter. You are going to say that, and you are going to mean that, and you are going to stay the hell away from this investigation. You are going to leave the police work to the police, and you are going to go home and prune your tomatoes, or whatever you do in the afternoons.”
“You don’t prune tomatoes, Sheriff,” I said with a smile.
He didn’t smile back. “I don’t care. Obviously what I’m saying is not getting through. You cannot be part of this investigation, Lila Grace. You are not a police officer, and I let myself get caught up in your…unconventional sources of information, and gave you an incorrect impression.”
“What impression is that, Sheriff?”
“That you are part of this investigation. Which you are not. You are not working with the police. You are a private citizen, and you are going to do what private citizens do, which is to stay out of the way and let the police do our job. Do you understand me?”
I felt my lips purse, and I took a deep breath before I spoke. When I did, there was not a hint of a tremor in my voice. “I understand perfectly, Sherif. I will stay out of your way from here on out. You have my word.” I stood up, looked down at him and asked, “Will there be anything else?”
“No, Ms. Carter,” he said. “You can go. I do appreciate the help you have given us to this point. It has been very valuable.”
“Thank you, Sheriff,” I said, and turned to the door. I walked out through the office, and pushed my way through the throng in the front of the office. I stepped out into the bright sunshine and got into my truck, pulling out into the street and driving home without taking any notice of anything around me. In almost a daze, I walked into my house, fixed myself a glass of sweet tea, and walked out onto my back porch. I sat down on the steps and looked out over the small vegetable garden I had coming up. Just half a dozen twenty-foot rows of tomatoes, beans, squash, and potatoes, with two pumpkin and three watermelon vines going wild at the end of the rows.
I sat there, sipping my tea and looking at my garden as I went over and over what the sheriff had said to me. I didn’t like his tone, but I couldn’t disagree with the facts as he presented them. I had overstepped. I never should have gone to the Miller house, and I certainly shouldn’t have talked to Mr. Miller alone.
Who was I kidding? I was no detective, no redneck Miss Marple solving mysteries and bringing killers to justice. I was just a half-cracked old lady with a little bit of a talent for hearing dead people.
I stood up and made to go inside when I caught sight of Sheriff Johnny standing on the other side of my screen door. Jenny was beside him, and both of them looked grim.
“What’s the matter, y’all?” I asked, pulling the door open and stepping inside. I set the empty glass down by the sink and turned to look at my visitors from Beyond.
“Please don’t quit, Ms. Lila Grace,” Jenny said. “I know the new sheriff was mean to you, and I heard what Mama said, but please.” The child’s voice took on a pleading tone. “There ain’t nobody else that can see me, or hear me, and I know that if you quit looking, ain’t nobody going to figure out who…who killed me, and now killed Shelly, too. I just know it!” The dishes rattled a little in the drying rack by the sink, testimony to the strength of the poor child’s upset. She was actually able to interact with the material world, which took either a ghost of tremendous power or one that was very upset. Jenny certainly seemed to fall into the latter category.
“I don’t know, darling,” I said. “Could be Sheriff Dunleavy’s right. I might be doing more harm than good, particularly where your parents are concerned. I had no right to go out there acting like some kind of TV detective and getting your daddy all upset.”
Sheriff Johnny stepped forward and held up a hand, like he was telling me to stop. His lips started to move, and I shook my head. “Johnny, we both know you can’t—“
He held up that hand again, and I closed my trap. He screwed up his face, like he was working really hard to think of something, then I heard it. His voice sounded like the wind whispering through a cemetery late at night, all kinds of rasp and hiss to it, but it was unmistakably his.
“You do good, Lila Grace,” he whispered, and I could see his image dim with the exertion. “You can’t stop. No one else will speak for usssss.” The last word trailed off into a long hiss, and he turned and walked through my back storm door. I watched him walk off, fading into invisibility as he did.
“I thought you said he couldn’t talk,” Jenny said.
“I didn’t think he could,” I said. I heard my own voice sound hollow, like it was coming from a long way away, or through a tunnel or something.
I stood there, leaning with my back against the sink for several minutes before I finally gave myself a little mental shake and walked into the living room. I picked up a little yellow notepad from the table beside my recliner and waved for Jenny to sit on the couch over to my left. I angled the chair a little bit so I was facing her more than the TV, even though it was off. That way I could look at her and not have to turn my head the whole time.
“Sit down, sweetie, and let’s get to work.” I said. “We got a murderer to catch.”