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 three of us descended my back steps out into the small fenced in yard. Johnny floated straight off toward the back of the yard, past my four lone tomato plants, which still produced more of the red fruit than any three people could ever eat. He walked through the laundry I hung out that morning before I started my investigation, and went straight to the back fence.
We followed, and Willis drew his pistol in his right hand and a small flashlight in his left. He didn’t do that funny cross grip like the police on TV, he just kept his gun pointed at the ground with his finger off the trigger, and aimed the flashlight at the ground in front of us.
I held up my hand when Johnny stopped and floated over one specific spot in my yard. I directed Willis’ flashlight to the spot, and it illuminated an almost perfect men’s boot print in one of the few spots devoid of grass in my yard. Maybe we had caught a break after all.
“This is good, Lila,” Willis said, pulling out his phone and wallet. He took a dollar bill from his wallet and laid it on the ground next to the footprint.
“You know Johnny’s dead, right?” I asked. “You don’t have to give him a tip.”
“The dollar is for scale,” he said. “It’s an old trick to get a photo with a size locked in when you don’t have your crime scene kit with you.” He took a few shots with his phone, with and without flash, then picked up the dollar and put it back in his wallet.
“Stay here, but don’t touch anything, including the fence right there,” he said, all cop. “I’ll be back in a minute with the good camera and my kit. Maybe we can catch another break and he left a print on the fence.”
I cast a dubious look at the split rail fence along my back yard, thinking it was going to be a cold day in hell before we got a fingerprint off the rough wooden surface, but I kept my doubts to myself. I watched the new sheriff walk around the side of my house, admiring the view as he went. The man definitely filled out a pair of blue jeans.
I turned to the former sheriff, who still stood beside me at the fence. “Thank you, Johnny. This could be just what we need to catch whoever hurt those girls.”
He nodded. He knew exactly what a clue like this could mean, of course, as long as he’d been in law enforcement. We waited by the print for Sheriff Dunleavy to return, and he came around the side of the house moments later carrying a bit toolbox in one hand with a camera bag slung across the opposite shoulder.
He set the toolbox on the ground, and the camera bag beside it. First, he opened the toolbox and pulled out a small LED light on a stand, which he aimed at the print. Next, he pulled a big, professional-looking camera out and started snapping pictures of the footprint and the surrounding area. He pulled a ruler out of the toolbox and laid it on the ground next to the print, getting a more precise measurement than his dollar bill trick. Next he pulled out two jars and a small Dixie paper cup, poured something from each jar into the Dixie cup and stirred it with a tongue depressor, then poured a white mixture into the print.
“What is that, some kind of plater?” I asked.
“Kinda,” he said, not looking up from his pouring. “It makes a malleable rubber cast of the print, and will also pick up any loose dirt from the impression, along with any trace evidence that was left behind from our visitor’s shoe.” When the footprint was filled with a thin layer of the white substance, he stood up and pulled out his flashlight again.
“While that dries, I’ll see if there is any other evidence our friend left for us to find,” he said, all business now that he was back on the job.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked.
“You can hold the light while I take pictures,” he said, passing me the big Maglite. I took it, and he put the camera around his neck. I followed as he walked toward the fence, careful not to take the most direct line to the print from the low point of the fence, but to walk beside the natural path. I pointed the light where he told me, and he snapped photos as we walked.
“I don’t see anything,” he said. “But in the low light it’s easy to miss something. I’ll put the pictures on the big monitor when I get back to the office, and if there’s something that will point us in the direction of a suspect, I’ll find it.”
“You’re going back to the office tonight?” I asked. I felt a little disappointed at that. It’s not like I was planning on him staying over at my house, not at all. I just thought we were nice and relaxed, maybe our evening didn’t need to end quite so soon.
“Yeah, as soon as that cast dries. I’ll scan the boot print and run it through a database of manufacturers. We don’t have everything catalogued, but if it’s a boot by a major shoe company in the US, I bet we’ll have it.”
“You have a computer program with every shoe print made in the United States?” I felt a little like Big Brother was watching, and he had a foot fetish.
“Distributed in the US,” he corrected. “Most shoes sold in America aren’t made here. But yeah, the FBI created a shoe print database a few years ago, and local law enforcement can access it. It’s not free, but there’s grant money available. Besides, I didn’t spend all our budget on that tank the National Guard wanted me to take off their hands, so we can afford to look up a couple of footprints.”
“I will never understand how law enforcement works,” I said.
“Be glad of that, Lila Grace. Aim that flashlight over here.” He pointed at the fence, then frowned. “Yeah, I can’t pull any prints off that. The surface is way too rough and uneven. Our guy probably wore gloves climbing over it, anyway. Wouldn’t make sense to carry gloves through your back yard just to put them on at the door.”
He crouched by the fence, going over every inch of it closely. I got down on one knee beside him, feeling the dew soak through the knee of my pants. My crouching days were over long ago, arthritis in my knees making it painful and a little middle-aged spread across the hips making my balance treacherous. The last thing I needed was to sprawl on my behind in the middle of a crime scene.
“Do you see anything?” I asked, keeping my voice low. I don’t know why I felt the need to whisper, my lot was sizable and unless someone felt the need to be standing on the other side of the fence, they couldn’t hear me if I spoke in my full voice. I guess it was the suspense of it all.
He turned to me, and as he did I caught a whiff of the smell of him. Laundry detergent, spicy aftershave, Jim Beam and just a hint of sweat blended together to make me swoon just a little. It had been a long time since I swooned, and I was out of practice, but I remembered what it felt like. I liked it. I was also very glad I wasn’t trying to maintain my balance, because I would certainly have plopped down on my butt in the wet grass, a mood-killer if there ever was one.
“No, there’s nothing here,” he said, his voice low like mine.
I didn’t feel like I needed to argue with him right then, but he was wrong. There was very definitely something there. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was very interested in finding out.
He stood up, and I followed suit. He packed up his tool kit and held out his hand. I stared at it, not knowing exactly what he wanted, then put my own hand in his. It felt good, the rough calluses of his palm against my own far-from-smooth hands. I work in my little garden too much to have very girly hands.
“While that’s nice, Lila Grace, and I’m certainly not complaining about holding your hand, I need my flashlight back.”
I was very glad it was too dark for him to see me blush. I let go of his hand and passed him the light, then turned and walked back into the house. We got to the living room and I turned to the couch. “Are you…gonna stay a little while?” I felt tentative now, like we needed to figure out how to start all over again. He shuffled his feet, like a schoolboy trying to figure out whether to kiss the girl on the playground, pull her pigtails, or both.
“I better go ahead to the office and get these photos logged. Can’t mess up the chain of evidence, you know.”
I did. I knew he had an excuse to leave, so he would. Damn you, Sheriff Johnny, for finding clues! “I reckon I’ll talk to you in the morning,” I said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Come on by the station around ten or eleven. I might have heard something about the shoe prints by then. We can figure out anything else we need to do then.”
I stepped in to him, pressed my lips briefly to his, and then slipped back. His hands were full, and he was making his escape, so there wasn’t going to be any kind of real goodnight kiss. “Good night, Sheriff.”
“Good night, Lila Grace,” he replied. “I’ll call Jeff. He’s on patrol tonight. I’ll get him to make sure he gives your place a drive by every couple of hours to keep an eye on the place. If you need anything, you can call me direct. I’ll be over here in a heartbeat.”
I didn’t bother exploring all the things I might call him in need of, not right at that moment, I just smiled and said “Thank you.”
We did that awkward dance of good nights and see you laters that people do when they aren’t real sure where they stand with one another, then he was gone. I heard the trunk of his car close, then the big engine roared to life and disappeared down the street toward the police station.
I sat down on the couch, leaned my head back against my grandmother’s throw pillows lined up across the back of the sofa, and let out of frustrated sigh. “Sweet Jesus, Lila Grace, why didn’t you just jump the man? You are nothing but a horny old woman, there is no way that fine piece of man is going to be interested in you.” I said to the empty room.
As happens so often in my completely bizarre and slightly dysfunctional life, the empty room spoke back to me. This time in the voice of a dead teenager. “I don’t know about that, Lila Grace, he seemed pretty damn interested to me.”
“What would you know, child?” I asked. “You died a virgin.” I clapped my hand over my mouth the second the words escaped, and looked at Jenny, my eyes big as saucers. “Oh shit honey, I am so sorry.”
The ghost child in my armchair gawked at me for a second, then laughed, throwing her head back and letting out a peal of pure joy and amusement. “Oh, good lord, Lila Grace, that’s the funniest damn thing I’ve heard since I died!” She had another long laugh at my expense, then looked me in the eye. “First off, I was a cheerleader. Understanding what men want, both in high school and after, was kinda my thing. Second, I did not die a virgin, and thank to me, neither will Alexander Zane.”
“Alex Zane?” I asked. “Isn’t he a sophomore at the University of South Carolina?”
“He is,” Jenny confirmed. “But he wasn’t two summers ago when he gave me a sob story about not wanting to go off to college a virgin when all his friends had lost their v-cards in high school. So we did it in the back of his daddy’s old Suburban. He got pretty good at it before he went away to school, too.” She gave a little smile at the memory.
“Do you think he could have…” I didn’t quite ask the question, but I made it real clear what the question was.
Jenn thought for a few seconds, then shook her head. “Nah, we split up on good terms. Even got together a few times last summer when he was home. But we were never anything serious, and when he got a girlfriend this year, he called to tell me he couldn’t see me over Christmas break. I think he expected me to be a lot more upset about than I was. Which is to say, I wasn’t upset at all. He was a nice guy, but I knew we were never going to be anything more than friends with benefits.”
“Was there anybody else that might not have been so happy about breaking up with you as Alex?” I asked.
She looked a little offended, but she was the one that brought it up. “Well, I wasn’t a slut, if that’s what you’re saying. I only ever slept with three boys. There was Alex, and Keith, my boyfriend right up until the end.”
“That’s two,” I prodded.
“The other one was this boy I met at the beach last summer. I…kinda don’t remember his name.” This was a night full of firsts for me. I’d had my house broken into, made out with an officer of the law, and now I had a blushing ghost in my living room.
“That’s okay, honey. We all have our wild oats to sow,” I said.
“Did you?” She asked.
“Baby girl, I sowed entire fields when I was in college. But that was a long time ago. Now I’m going to go to bed and try real hard not to dream about sheriffs that smell good enough to slather in syrup and eat up like a stack of flapjacks.”