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.
We walked out of the restaurant and down the steps, our feet crunching in the gravel. “Well, I reckon this is goodnight, Lila Grace,” Willis said, turning to me. He had that awkward look of a man that ain’t sure if he’s supposed to hug me, shake my hand, or try to kiss me.
I just wore my normal expression. Sheriff Johnny used to say I looked like I knew something he didn’t. I replied that I usually did. “Why should this be goodnight, Sheriff?” I asked with a smile. I leaned back against the fender of my old truck and gave him a direct look.
He spluttered a little bit before he managed to spit out “W-well, I reckon it don’t have to be, I mean, um…”
“You mean you still need a ride back to your car?” I said with one eyebrow up.
“Huh?” He looked for all the world like a bulldog chewing on a wasp, like there was something hurting his head, but he wasn’t real sure what it was.
“We left your car at Sharky’s, Willis. Unless you feel like walking three miles across town to go get it, I reckon you ain’t getting rid of me that easy.” I pushed off from the truck, reached out and closed him mouth with two fingers under his chin, and walked around to get into the driver’s seat.
He slid in on the passenger side of the big bench seat and put on his seat belt. “Don’t you ever lock your truck?”
“Why in the world would I? This truck is almost thirty years old, has almost four hundred thousand miles on it, a rusted-out rear fender, and a bed held together pretty much with Bondo and paint. I don’t keep anything in it worth stealing, except the shotgun behind the seat, and if there’s anybody in the county that don’t already have something better than a double-barrel four-ten, well I reckon they’re welcome to it.” I pulled the truck out onto the highway in the wake of a log truck hauling a late load of pine. I love the smell of fresh-cut pine logs, but I did hang back far enough not to get sap on my windshield.
“You keep a shotgun behind the seat of your truck? You know that’s against the law, right?”
“It ain’t loaded, Willis. The shells are in the glove box, and it’s locked. Usually. Sometimes. Well, at least the shells are in the glove box,” I said. “Besides, what are you going to do, arrest an old woman for concealing a three-foot long shotgun? Judge Comer would laugh your ass right out of his courtroom.”
He chuckled, and rolled his window down, letting the warm air and the scent of honeysuckle filter into the truck’s cab. “You ain’t wrong, there. I swear that man thinks I ain’t nothing more than a Yankee carpetbagger. He all but said so the first time I went to the courthouse to introduce myself.”
“Well, maybe if that wasn’t the first time I’d heard you say ‘ain’t’ in the time I’ve known you, people wouldn’t think you such an interloper.”
“Now come on, that’s not fair,” he protested. “You use just as many big words as I do, if not more.”
“That’s true, but I have the benefit of living my entire life below the Mason-Dixon Line. You are at the distinct disadvantage of having spent three decades in Minnesota, a place as foreign to most residents of the South Carolina Upstate as Kathmandu. Besides, I say all those big words with an accent. Gives it style.”
We both laughed and I pulled into the parking lot of Sharky’s. There were a lot more cars in the lot now, but plenty of space around Willis’ cruiser. Seemed like nobody wanted to risk having one too many and clipping the police car on the way out of the lot.
“You want to come in, have a nightcap?” He asked, opening the passenger door and slipping off his seatbelt.
“No, I think I better get home. All them cats get ornery if I stay out too late.”
His face got a panicked look. “You have cats?”
I busted out laughing. “Lord, no! But I thought it would be funny to pretend to be the stereotypical crazy cat lady for a minute. No, I don’t have any pets. They don’t like all my unannounced visitors. Cats don’t like ghosts, and I don’t like cat pee on my hardwoods. Dogs are too stupid to care about random dead people showing up, and that means they’re too dumb for me to tolerate. So no pets for me. But I’m still gonna pass on that drink. Two glasses of wine with dinner has me feeling just right. I think I’m going to go home, take a bubble bath with a trashy romance novel, and go to sleep with the ceiling fan on.”
“Sounds good,” he said. He walked around the side of the truck and leaned in my open window. “I had a nice time tonight, Lila Grace. Does this clear my debt, or do I need to keep apologizing?”
I leaned forward a little. “I reckon I’ve almost forgiven you.”
He moved closer. “Well, that means I’ve still got some work to do.”
It had been some time, but I was pretty sure I knew what was supposed to come next, and I was pretty sure I wanted it to happen. I leaned a little closer. “Well, then get to work, Sheriff.”
He pressed his mouth to mine, and I let out a little sigh. His lips were strong, and firm, and he reached up to stroke the side of my head right behind my ear. I opened my mouth and felt his tongue slide between my lips, probing gently, dancing across my teeth just long enough to be promising, then pull back. We parted, and he gave me a look that melted me right down to my core.
“Enjoy that bubble bath. And that trashy romance novel,” he said, his lips just inches from mine, Then he pressed them to me again, this time more chaste, but still strong, passionate. I sighed again, like some silly girl in a Nicholas Sparks movie, but I couldn’t stop myself. The firm lips, the strong hand on my face, the stubble scraping my cheek as he moved forward to whisper “It’s gonna take me a long time to sleep tonight.” All that combined to make me real glad I was sitting in my truck and not trying to stand, because that man made me weak in the knees like nobody in a very long time.
I gave him one last peck on the lips. “I had a lovely time, Willis. We’ll have to do it again. Real soon.” Then I cranked the put the truck in reverse and got the hell away from that man before I jumped his bones right there in Sharky’s parking lot.
Jenny was sitting on my porch when I got home, on the two-seater swing next to Sheriff Johnny, both of them grinning at me like damn Cheshire cats. “Don’t say a word, young lady,” I warned as I walked up the steps and unlocked my front door. “I am allowed to go to dinner with a man if I want to, and I am allowed to kiss him if I want to.”
“Did you want to?” Jenny asked, her voice sing-songy as she kicked her feet on the motionless swing. I was glad it wasn’t moving. I had enough trouble with the folks on my street without my porch swing moving all by itself on a night with no breeze at all.
I felt a slight blush creep up my neck and across my cheeks as I very carefully did not look at the ghost. “I did. Want to, that is?”
“So did you?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know that I feel the need to tell you that. A woman deserves to have some secrets, after all.” I smiled as I pushed the door open.
“You might as well tell me. If you don’t, I’ll just go over to the cemetery and ask the Three Musketeers.”
I laughed in spite of trying to act mad at her being all nosy. “Is that what you’re calling those women? The Three Musketeers?”
“Well, it sounds a whole lot nicer than the Three Stooges,” Jenny said, a little defensiveness creeping into her tone.
“Oh no, honey, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine. It’s just that’s what they called themselves when they were alive, and I think it’s funny that’s what you came up with to call them after death, without knowing it before.”
“Oh,” she said, mollified. “Okay, then. As long as you weren’t making fun of me.”
“Perish the thought,” I said.
“Well, did you?” She persisted.
“Make fun of you?” I asked. “Maybe a little, but—“
“No, silly! Did you kiss him?” She barreled right past me into the living room and stared at me, then her eyes got big and she froze. “Somebody was here.”
I didn’t take another step into the house. “Are they gone?” I whispered, moving back out the door, trying hard not to make any noise.
“Yeah, they’re gone now,” she said.
“Yeah. There’s nobody here but us. I can kinda…sense, I guess, living people now. I can feel them. Y’all, I mean.”
That was new to me. I hadn’t heard of spirits being able to sense the presence of the living. It kinda made sense, I reckon, since there are some living people who can feel ghosts when they’re around. “And you’re sure nobody is in there?”
“No, nobody’s nearby but you. I can feel Mr. Martin in his bedroom next door, and Mrs. Cline over on the other side. I can even kinda feel the Jenkins kids home alone on the other side of Mrs. Cline, but that’s all.”
“Johnny, can you do that?” I asked. He was standing behind me, looking worried. He shook his head. I wasn’t too surprised by that. I learned a long time ago that ghosts have different abilities. Johnny can’t talk, and Jenny can. Both of them can move around freely, while some ghosts are stuck near a specific place. That sort of thing.
I turned back to Jenny. “How can you tell somebody was here if they’ve already left? Do people leave some kind of psychic residue behind?”
She looked at me, confused for a minute, then laughed. “Oh! No, there’s a busted pane of glass in your back door, and a muddy footprint in the dining room. I saw it, that’s all.”
“Dammit!” I said, stomping into the house, flipping on every light I passed. Sure enough, broken glass lay scattered all over the floor of my mud room, and there were several muddy footprints on my linoleum. “I just mopped this yesterday, now some son of a bitch had to come in here and make a damn mess.”
“Miss Lila Grace, do you really think that’s what you oughta be upset about right now?” Jenny asked. I turned, and saw Sheriff Johnny flitting from room to room behind her. He walked over to us, held up his hands in a helps gesture, and shrugged.
“Nothing’s missing?” I asked.
Johnny shook his head.
“So something is missing?”
He shook his head again.
“Hold up one finger if you can’t see anything missing, two fingers if you can.” Sometimes working with a deaf-mute dead law enforcement officer is downright exasperating.
Johnny held up one finger. It is a mark of the level of gentleman that his mother raised that he used his index finger instead of a more demonstrative digit.
“So somebody broke in here just to…what? Track mud all over my kitchen? Hell, they could have waited until morning and come to the front door. Really piss me off and track dirt across the carpets.”
“I think they were looking for this stuff,” Jenny said. She stood at the dining room table, looking over the notes I had written from my interviews and the crime scenes. I walked over to join her and picked up one of the yellow legal pads I kept all my thoughts and theories on.
“What makes you say that, Jenny?” I asked. I saw Johnny standing behind the girl nodding, so obviously he thought the same thing.
“Everything is a little too neat. You left things kinda lying all scattered around, because you knew wasn’t nobody but you going to need to use the table. But now everything is in neat stacks, with everything perfectly straight.
I took another look at the table. With the exception of the legal pad I’d just laid down, she was right. Everything was at perfect 90-degree angles, and every pile was now a neat stack. I looked a little closer, and all the stacks were organized by type of information, too. Interviews were in one stack, crime scene notes in another, stuff I thought of while talking to Jenny in another. Whoever went through my things left my house in better shape than they found it, except for the broken glass.
“Well, shit,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked. “I mean, besides the obvious.”
“Now I have to call Willis. And I was going to make him call me.”