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.
Willis came back through the house, his gun holstered, to where I sat on the front porch swing with Jenny. “The place is empty,” he said, turning the rocker sideways and sitting down to face me.
“I told you that,” I said. “Jenny did a thorough job of checking the place out before she’d even let me go get Daddy’s gun and walk through the whole house myself.” I reached out and patted the ancient twelve-gauge leaning against the wall beside me. Daddy’s old gun had seen a lot of use when he was a younger man, bringing home dinner more than once when deer was in season. Since he passed, it mostly got used to scare crows out of the pecan tree in the back yard, or to take care of the occasional copperhead in the summer. I keep it loaded, though, with a shell of birdshot in first, then four shells full of double-ought buckshot just in case somebody’s stupid enough to still be in my way after I dump a bunch of pellets into their behind.
“How did you know someone had been inside your house, Ms. Carter?”
“I’m Ms. Carter, now?” I asked with a smile.
“Well, I am conducting an investigation. But it could be that we might get a little less formal once my questions get answered. But not before. So, how did you know someone had been in your house?”
“It was too clean,” I said.
“So someone broke into your house and…cleaned up?” Willis Dunleavy gave me almost exactly the same look he gave me the first time we met, when I told him I had a gift for talking to dead people.
“The stuff on the dining room table had been straightened. I left it all in big piles, but when I came back, it was all straight. And then there’s the busted window on the back porch.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of a dead giveaway,” he agreed.
“Plus Jenny felt somebody’s presence,” I added.
The sheriff’s pen stopped moving and he looked up at me. “Now, you see, that’s the kind of thing I can’t put in my report.”
“I can’t possibly see how that’s my problem, Willis,” I said with a smile. “It’s the truth. I know it, you know, and poor old dead Sheriff Johnny standing behind you knows it.”
He jumped up and turned around like his butt was spring-loaded. I reared back in the swing, laughing fir to beat the band, and he just turned back around and sat back down in the chair in a huff. “I’m sorry, Sheriff,” I said, still laughing a little bit. “Johnny ain’t behind you. He wandered off after I called you, and I ain’t seen him in half an hour. I was just pulling your leg.”
“That’s not funny, Lila Grace,” he grumped, but I saw a little hint of a smile.
“Oh, don’t be an old fuddy-duddy, Willis. If you can’t laugh about the dead people that won’t leave you alone, what in the world can you laugh about?”
“You are a very strange woman, Lila Grace Carter,” he said, flipping his little notebook closed.
“You have no idea, Willis Dunleavy,” I said, standing up.
He stood, and all of a sudden we were standing on my porch, very close to each other, almost face to face. I felt his breath on my face, warm in the slightest chill of the evening air, and felt a warmth build inside me to match it.
“Well—“ he started
“Would you—“ I started at the same time, then stopped. “Go ahead,” I said.
“No, you,” he waved a hand.
I took a deep breath to quiet the butterflies in my stomach. “Would you like to come in for a drink?”
“That would be nice,” he replied.
“I don’t have anything but Jim Beam, I don’t keep much in the way of mixers,” I said as I stepped past him into my den. I flipped on the light switch. It had gotten dark while we were sitting out there. CHECK TIME OF DAY.
“That’s fine,” he said, following me close, almost close enough for me to feel that hot breath again on the back of my neck. I slowed down a little, let him get closer. I could smell him, the warm man-smells of him. He smelled like leather from his gun belt, oil from his gun, and a hint of aftershave left over from the morning. Or maybe he splashed a tiny bit on before he came to my house? Either way, he smelled good. Strong, like a man should smell.
He pushed the front door closed behind us and I heard him click the lock. I wove my way past the recliner in the den, past the dining room table with all my notes stacked too neatly on my grandmother’s quilt that I repurposed for a tablecloth a few years ago, and walked into the kitchen. I got two jelly jars down out of the cabinet and put a few ice cubes in each one. I turned to walk back to the dining room but stopped when I almost bumped right into Willis, filling the door frame with my three-quarters full Jim Beam bottle in his hand.
“Sit down over there,” he pointed to my ancient formica-topped kitchen table. I did as he said, and set the two glasses on the table. He put the bottle down in front of me, then turned and walked out the back door onto the small back porch/mud room where my washer and dryer, deep freezer, and tool boxes sat.
“What are you doing, Willis?” I called after him.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “Just pour the whiskey.”
I gave a little shrug and did as I was told, content for the moment to let him have his little secret. Until I hear a horrendous banging coming from my back porch, that it. Then I shot up like a rocket myself, and hustled to the door to see what the hell he was doing.
What he was doing, was nailing a little piece of cardboard over the hole in my back door. He turned to me and gave me a sheepish little grin. “It won’t keep out anything more determined than a wasp, but at least you won’t have bugs getting in all night.”
“Thank you, Willis, I appreciate it. You didn’t have to do that, though. I wasn’t going to make you work for your drink.” At least not that way, I thought.
He smiled and put the hammer aside. “I don’t mind. I don’t get much chance to do things with my hands except shoot nowadays. I kinda miss it.”
I stepped forward and stood up on tiptoes to kiss him on his rough cheek, enjoying the feel of his salt-and-pepper stubble on my lips. “Well, thank you, kind sir. Here is your reward.” I kissed his cheek again, and handed him a glass with three ice cubes and two fingers of whiskey in it.
“I dusted the knob for prints, but there was nothing but smudges. Not even your prints, which tells me either you wipe down your house every day, or the burglar wore gloves and took measures to make sure he wasn’t discovered,” he said, sipping his drink.
I took a drink of my own, hearing the light tinkle of ice cubes shaking against the sides of my glass. I hated that noise, because I wasn’t rattling the ice around on purpose, my hands just wouldn’t quite hold still. “Do you think it was the killer?” I asked. My voice sounded strange to my ears. It was a light, querulous thing, not the voice of a strong woman who lived on her own most of her life. It was the voice of a scared, delicate thing who needed protecting. I hated that voice a little bit, and knocked back the rest of my whiskey to drown that simpering wretch.
Willis raised an eyebrow as I refilled my glass, but I didn’t respond. He took another sip and replied. “I can’t imagine it would be anyone, else. Just about everybody in town knows you’re working this case in one way or another, and if they don’t know it directly, they could probably figure it out from seeing us together in Sharky’s twice in one day.”
“Yes, I don’t expect they would think much of my chances in the dating pool, so the logical assumption would be that we are working together.” I heard the bitterness in my voice and tried to tell myself it was the whiskey talking, and not the decades of sidelong glances from my neighbors, who were quick enough to knock on my door when they needed something, but had an alarming tendency to find something pressing on the other side of the street when they saw me on the sidewalk otherwise.
“I think your chances of landing a lawman are pretty good, if you ask me,” Willis said. “And I don’t mean Jeff.”
We both laughed out loud at that. Willis, because he probably thought Jeff just another hapless yokel, and me because I would always see him as the sweet but slightly dim boy in my Sunday School class. “No, I don’t think I’ll be having a steak dinner with Jeff any time soon. He’s sweet, but he’s a little young for me.”
“But you don’t have a problem dating a cop?” Willis asked, leaning forward with his elbows on the table. His gaze became suddenly intense, and I thought for a second that I could see myself reflected in his deep brown eyes.
It took me a long moment to find my voice, but finally I said, “No. I think dating an officer of the law might even be a little bit…exciting.” I let the last word linger, a little tease in the air. It had been a long time since I played this game, and I was rusty, but it was much more fun than I remembered. Maybe that’s because I’d only played it with boys before, and this time I was fencing with a grown man. A very grown man.
I straightened up suddenly as Sheriff Johnny walked through the back door. He didn’t open it, of course, he literally walked through my back door, making not the slightest sound to tell Willis that his predecessor had entered the room.
“What is it?” Willis said when I sat up. His cop instincts were on point, and he was on his feet with his gun out in an instant. He spun around to follow my gaze, but of course he saw nothing. He was face to face with Sheriff Johnny, who just stood there looking Willis up and down like he was some kind of interloper poking his badge in where he didn’t belong.
“It’s Johnny,” I said, holding up my hands in a calming gesture. “He just came in through the back door and he’s motioning like he wants us to follow him outside.” I stood up, and the room wobbled just a little bit. Drinks with dinner, a nightcap after, and now a strong drink in my kitchen amounted to more than my normal intake of liquor, and I was feeling the effects. It made Johnny less distinct, harder to see and thus harder to understand.
Alcohol dulls my sensitivity, which is why I spent the month after my mother died drunk as a skunk. I didn’t want to see her ghost, I just wanted to miss her like a normal person. Like every daughter that loses a mother, there were things between us that had been better left unsaid. And just like every strong-willed woman who came from a strong-willed woman, nothing remained unsaid between us. So when she died, I crawled inside a bottle of Seagram’s gin and didn’t crawl out until I had it on good authority that she was no longer hanging around my house or hers. I haven’t had a sip of gin since. Nowadays the mere smell of it makes me sick to my stomach.
I got hold of my equilibrium and followed Johnny out the back door and down the concrete steps. I opened the door, a concession to my physical form that Johnny still didn’t have to make. I was also apparently going to have to have a conversation with him about making concessions to my privacy, because if things moved the way I hoped with Willis, it certainly would not do to have a dead sheriff wandering into my home unannounced. I have enough issues with intimacy without turning my love life into a spectator sport, thank you.