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.
I left the manse thirty minutes later with about half a dozen new names on my list, and a plan of action in my head. I drove back across town to my church and pulled into a parking space this time, instead of letting the vehicle sit there all cattywumpus like I was some kind of drunk driver.
“What are we doing here?” Jenny asked, passing through the door as I got out and closed mine.
“I’ve got a couple people I need to talk to, and this is the best place to do it,” I said, walking across the grass, being careful to keep my steps to the narrow path between the foot markers and the row of headstones behind. I knew full well the people in the graves didn’t mind me walking on them, I’d been told as much many times, but Mama always told me it was disrespectful to step on a grave, so I tried my best not to.
Uncle Luther was sitting on his headstone, like he was about every night. I didn’t have any idea where he went during the day, and really had no idea why he was lingering. Luther couldn’t speak, and no time in all my trips through the cemetery had he ever tried to flag me down or communicate with me at all. He just sat on that headstone every night, watching the street like he was waiting for somebody. It couldn’t be Aunt Lula, she passed ten years ago and didn’t linger a minute, just went straight on into the light the second her soul stood up from her body. Luther just sat there, night after night, not bothering nothing, so I didn’t see as how it was any of my business.
I made a beeline for Helen Wix’s plot. Helen was part of the town switchboard when she was living, and that didn’t change a bit when she died. The switchboard was what the locals called a network of old women who all went to church together, usually over at the Methodist church, and talked on the phone every morning. Whenever an ambulance or fire truck went down the road, you could be sure that Miss Helen, Miss Faye Comer, or Miss Frances Russell knew the whys and the wherefore of what was going on within five minutes of it happening.
Since she died, Miss Helen had become an even more important source of news and gossip around town. She was a rare ghost, one that wasn’t tied to one place, could talk, and didn’t seem to have any desire to move on. I asked her about it once, but all she would say was that Lockhart was her home, and it was her duty to keep an eye on things. I reckon it might have had more to do with her widower Mr. George and the fact that he had taken to stepping out with Julia McKnight about three months after Miss Helen was in the ground. After that happened, her little round ghostly form could often be seen flitting back and forth between her home and the McKnight place, trailing one of her long flowered dresses through the air like a Laura Ashley printed Casper.
Miss Helen was at home, so to speak, when I walked up. She was at her stone, standing with her arms folded watching the goings on around the cemetery. At any given time, there were a dozen or more regulars hanging around a church cemetery in any small town, and First Presbyterian was no different. Miss Helen was the unofficial mayor of the First Presbyterian dead, and she smiled as she saw me coming.
“Oh good Lord, child, come here and let me get a look at you!” She squealed a little when I approached. She once confided to me that she got a little bored with the conversations she had in the cemetery, and looked forward to my visits since I was alive and could actually talk with her, instead of just talking at her, like her daughter and granddaughter had to do. The dead are typically very much locked in to the world and opinions they held when they died, so I could see how talking to ghosts all the time could get boring. I often wished that the ghosts I talked to could be a little more boring and little less murdered.
“Hey Miss Helen, how you doing today?” I said. Had she been alive, she would have hugged my neck. As it was, we just gave each other awkward little waves on account of her insubstantiality.
“Fine, I’m fine, darling. Hope you are. And who is this little darlin’?” She asked, looking at Jenny.
“I’m Jenny Miller, ma’am. Pleased to meet you.” Jenny stuck out her hand.
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry, but—“ Helen’s mouth fell open as Jenny was able to touch her and shake her hand. “Oh my goodness, honey, I am so sorry! You know sometimes it is so hard to tell who is who, especially with y’all that ain’t been gone very long.”
Helen turned back to me. “What in the world is going on, Lila Grace? Why did you bring this dead child to my plot? Do you need some help, honey?”
I wasn’t sure whether she was talking to me or Jenny, but maybe it was both, so I just said, “Yes, Miss Helen. I do need some help. Jenny here was murdered last week, and I was hoping maybe you could help us figure out who did it.”
“Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry!” Helen reached out and wrapped Jenny in a big-armed, muumuu-wearing hug that probably would have suffocated the child, or at least popped a rib, if she’d still been drawing breath. As it was, she was fine.
“Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate that,” Jenny said.
“Miss Helen, were you anywhere near the Miller place last Friday?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, which one is the Miller house?” She asked.
“It’s over on Pecan Lane, the brick house with the blue shutters,” Jenny said.
“Oh yes, I know that place. What an unfortunate decision about them shutters. I really think they could have done better than that baby blue, it just clashes with the brick in all kinds of ways. I’m sorry, honey, I know that’s your home and all, but it just ain’t attractive.”
“No, ma’am, don’t be sorry. You’re right. Mama told Daddy when he bought that paint they were going to be butt-ugly, and she was right,” Jenny agreed.
“Okay, now I know the place. No, I wasn’t anywhere close. I was over watching the ball game. Is that when you died, sweetie?” Helen asked, turning her head to Jenny.
“How is it she can see and talk to me?” Jenny asked.
“Well, honey. It’s just like you could talk to Sheriff Johnny. Y’all all exist in the same plane. Of course she can see you,” I explained.
“Lila Grace is too sweet to say that there ain’t been nothing happening in Lockhart for forty years that me and my girls ain’t seen,” Helen said with a laugh. Two other ethereal women appeared to stand next to Helen, all three of them with broad smiles on their faces.
“She’s too polite to say that not even the grave can shut your bog old mouth, Helen,” a slight, woman with a boyish haircut and a broad smile said, her grin denying her waspish words.
“Oh, be nice, Faye,” the other woman said, a twinkle in her eye. She was a big woman, not round, like Miss Helen, but tall and imposing. There was a presence to her that hadn’t diminished, even in death.
“Ladies,” I said with a nod and a smile. “How y’all doing this evening?”
“Fine, fine,” Faye Comer said with a nod, her bright blue eyes set deep in a wrinkled face. She wore much the same clothes she had on most days in life, a white striped blouse and a pair of blue jeans.
“We’re all just excited to have some company with something to talk about other than how they died,” Miss Frances said. She wore bright red and white floral blouse with dark slacks and comfortable shoes, the kind of outfit I’d expect to see on a woman attending a church meeting, which Miss Frances did quote a bit of before she passed.
“Speaking of that, I need to talk to y’all about how this poor child died,” I said to peals of laughter from the trio.
“Of course you do, sweetheart,” Miss Helen said. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need the assistance of the greatest investigators in Union County.”
“Or the nosiest bitches in the Carolinas, if you want to be more accurate,” Miss Faye said with a wry twist to her lips.
“Ignore those two, precious,” Miss Frances said to Jenny. “What do you need to know? If we don’t know it, we can probably find it out for you.”
She wasn’t kidding, either. Being dead had done nothing to quell these women’s curiosity, and since a fair portion of their gossip network was also dead, they had a finger on the pulse of the town, as ironic as that sounds.
“We’ve got a bunch of people, and I need to know where they were Friday night,” I said, showing the women our list of people who might hold grudges against the girls. “Anybody we can eliminate from suspicion in Jenny’s murder is almost certainly innocent of Shelly’s as well, and that will be better, since we don’t have a good timeline on when Shelly died yet.”
“Oh, that poor child, drowned in her car like that,” Miss Faye said.
“We don’t know that yet, Faye,” Miss Helen said. “They ain’t done with the autopsy yet. She might have been dead before she ever rolled into the lake.”
“She’s right,” I agreed. “I hadn’t considered that before, but the lake might have just been a place to dump the body and not where Shelly was killed.”
“Well, that would be good,” Miss France said.
“Why’s that?” Jenny asked.
“With as many hollers and old gully and patches of woods as we’ve got around here, if they pushed her car into the lake to hide the body, then the killer is either stupid, or ain’t from around here. Either one is good for us.” The woman said.
“She ain’t wrong,” Miss Helen agreed. “Okay, Lila Grace, hold up that list. We’ll memorize it and put the Dead Old Ladies’ Detective Agency on the case!”
They took another look at the paper, then each of them nodded at me. The women went off in three different directions to talk to he dead in their relative cemeteries. I turned to Jenny and said “Well, if there’s anything known about your murder by any ghost in this part of the county, we’ll know it in a few hours.”
“What’s next for us?” Jenny asked.
“Well, sweetie, I reckon next for me is going to be a bite of supper. I ain’t had nothing to eat in a considerable time, and my belly’s going to start gnawing on my backbone if I don’t correct that oversight in the immediate future.” I walked to the truck and got in. “Besides, I think Sheriff Dunleavy owes me an apology, and maybe a steak dinner.”