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 woke up a little before the sun the next morning feeling almost more tired than when I went to bed. Just as I feared, good-smelling law enforcement officers dominated my dreams, and I tossed and turned all night. I stretched, listening the my spine and hips crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies, and shuffled off to the bathroom in my nightgown to take care of business.
A how shower later, I dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and a worn Mast General Store sweatshirt that I picked up at the Goodwill in Spartanburg a couple of years back, and I meandered into the kitchen to fix up some breakfast.
“Well, it’s about time you got up, lazybones,” said the ghost sitting at my kitchen table. I stopped dead in the doorway and looked around. My kitchen could have been host of a busybody ghost convention, with Sheriff Johnny, Jenny, Helen, Frances, and Faye all crowded into one small room. It was a good thing they were incorporeal, because otherwise it would have been awful crowded in there.
“Well, ain’t you going to ask what we’re all doing here?” continued Miss Faye, who was the sharpest-tongued sweet old lady I’d ever known, alive or dead.
“I ain’t gonna do a damn thing until I’ve at least had a sip of coffee,” I said, walking over to the counter. “Move, Johnny. You know I can only kinda see through you, and you’re between me and my favorite mug.”
He got out of the way, and I poured myself a cup of coffee into my favorite World’s Best Grandma mug. I wasn’t anybody’s grandma, but it was an oversized mug and held almost two cups of coffee. I had a feeling I was going to need it with the damn United Nations of redneck ghosts floating around my house. I took a sip of the hot brown liquid, and between the shower, the coffee, and the adrenaline of being extra haunted at seven in the morning, my mind was almost clear by the time I took a seat at the table.
“Okay, folks, why are y’all here?” I asked.
“We did some looking around town last night after you went to bed,” Miss Helen said.
“I helped,” Jenny said, her face covered in a big grin.
“Yes, you did, darling. Now hush for a minute,” Helen said, patting the girl’s arm. I always found it interesting that ghosts could touch one another easily, but had to expend a lot of energy to physically interact with anything in our world. Just another one of those “mysterious ways,” I reckon.
“So we did a little digging, with Jenny’s help, and we think we know who broke in your house yesterday,” Helen said.
“Well, that’s great,” I said. “Because that might be the killer.”
“That’s what we thought, too,” Miss Faye interjected.
I sat there, waiting, but no one spoke. “Well?” I asked. “Are y’all gonna tell me who it was, or should I just sit and wait for them to murder me, too?”
“You remember that freak Ian that Shelly hacked his phone? My dad told you about him,” Jenny said.
I didn’t, but it was early. I got up and went into the dining room. I got my little notebook and flipped it open to the pages where I wrote stuff down while I was talking to Mr. Miller. “Ian Vernon,” I said. “He was the school newspaper’s photographer. Shelly made it look like he sent dirty pictures to all his female classmates.”
“That’s the one,” Jenny said, her face contorted in an ugly snarl. “He used to always take pictures of us at the football games, and he made sure to get the shots when we tossed a girl up in the air, or somebody was jumping around and her skirt would flip up. We all wore trunks, but it was still kinda skeevy.”
“What makes you think he was the one who broke into my house?” I asked.
“I remembered that he always dressed like one of those freaks you see on the news that turns out to have a bomb in his locker or something, with long black coats and black boots and stuff. So I went and got Miss Frances, and she called the other women—“
“The Dead Old Ladies Detective Agency,” Miss Helen corrected.
“She got the Agency together,” Jenny said, then went on after a nod from Helen. “And we all went over to his house to look around.”
“Jenny!” I said. “That’s illegal. You can’t just go into somebody’s house without them asking you.”
“What are they gonna do?” Jenny asked. “Arrest me? I’m dead, I think I’ve got other things to worry about other than getting arrested for breaking and entering.”
“Besides, we didn’t break,” Miss Frances said. “We walked right through the walls into his bedroom. Nobody knew we were even there.”
“Except that cat,” Miss Faye said.
“Yeah, that cat didn’t like us very much,” Miss Helen agreed. “Just sat out on the hall meowing and hissing the whole time we were there.”
“Are y’all going to tell me what you found, or just sit there congratulating one another?” I asked. I’m usually far more respectful of the dead, and of my elders, and certainly of anyone happens to be both, which account for four of the five people in my kitchen. But it was early. I blame my poor manners on lack of caffeine.
“The boots match,” Miss Faye said. Her voice was typically matter-of-fact, like she was saying the sky was blue, or that grass was green. I whipped my head around to her so quick my brain had to take a second to catch up.
“The print we saw in Sheriff Dunleavy’s camera matched the boots we found in Ian’s closet perfectly,” Jenny said. “That perv is definitely the one that killed me and Shelly.” She folded her arms across her chest and looked at me, simultaneously proud of herself for finding the culprit and pissed off about being dead. I couldn’t blame her. I kinda felt both those emotions right then, too.
“Well, I guess the next thing to do would be to call Sheriff Dunleavy and get him to interview Ian. Maybe we can find some reason to talk to him at school,” I said.
“Isn’t me telling you reason enough?” Jenny asked, her voice rising. I noticed the coffee cup rattling on the saucer before me, and I reached out to still the shaking porcelain.
“It is for me, honey, but I don’t think your testimony is a whole lot of good in a court of law,” I pointed out. Jenny scowled at me, but had no response. One benefit to being an old woman talking to young’uns is that sometimes they just shut up when they realize they’re wrong. This does not happen nearly often enough with grownups.
I walked into the kitchen and picked up the cordless phone sitting on the antique icebox I used as a catch-all flat surface to hold the phone, phonebooks, notepads, ink pens, and bills that come in the mail until I get around to paying them. I walked over to my purse and dug out my cell phone, then shook my head and hung the cordless back up in its cradle.
“I reckon if I’ve got his number in my cell phone, I could just use that to call him, couldn’t I?” I asked the air. Or I reckon I might have been asking the passel of dead people sitting in my dining room, but they ignored me, talking amongst themselves about all the “proof” they had that Ian was our murderer.
I pulled up Willis’ number in my contacts list and pressed the button to call him, putting the phone on speaker so everyone could hear the conversation. It rang three times before he answered, and his voice was thick with sleep when he did. “Hello?”
“Willis? Sheriff?” I corrected myself, but not quite fast enough.
“Lila Grace?” he sounded like he was starting to come awake. “What time is it?”
I looked at the clock on the stove. “Six-thirty,” I replied. “I’m sorry, I should have waited to call. I didn’t even think that you might not be up yet. I just tend to get up early. I’m sorry, we can talk later. Give me a—“
“Lila Grace,” his voice cracked over the lines. I stopped talking. “I’m awake now. What do you need? Did something else happen in the night?”
It took me a minute to figure out what he was asking. Of course nothing else happened, he went home. Then I blushed a little at the direction my mind went, and I said, “No, no, nothing like that. But I think we might have caught a break in the case.”
“What do you mean?” His voice had not a single trace of sleep-fuzzy in it now. I had his complete attention.
“The ladies went over to Ian Vernon’s house last night, and they seem to think his boots match the print in my yard.”
“The ladies? Lila Grace, you can’t just go breaking into somebody’s house on a hunch. Not only is that against the law, it’s dangerous as hell. You know just about everybody around here has a shotgun. What if he’d shot you?”
“I think I’d be more worried about his daddy, than Ian,” I said. “From what I’m hearing, if Ian shoots anybody, it’s with a camera. And I didn’t go into his house. I didn’t even know what they were doing until these crazy old biddies showed up in my kitchen this morning.”
That got a glare from the assembled self-appointed detectives, and a confused grunt from the man on the other end of the phone. “Lila Grace, what in the hell are you talking about?”
“Miss Helen, Miss Frances, and Miss Faye went over to Ian’s house last night with Jenny. They walked through his bedroom walls and peeked at the bottom of his boots. Jenny says it’s a perfect match for the boot print in the mud in my back yard.”
“I say that because it is,” Jenny said. “Tell him to arrest that little panty-snatcher!”
“Jenny also says that the boy is a little bit of peeping tom, trying to catch pictures up the cheerleaders’ skirts,” I added.
“Lila Grace, every body from twelve to twenty spends half his life trying to get one glimpse of cheerleader drawers. I ain’t arresting this boy on account of him being heterosexual. But I will go talk to Mr. Mitchell and see about getting an impression of the boy’s shoes. If he wears those boots to school today, and his parents agree to it, and the school lets us, maybe we can get him to step in ink and walk on a sheet of paper for us.”
“You don’t have to talk to his parents,” Jenny said. “He turned eighteen back in the summer. He got held back in seventh grade because he got the mumps and missed too many days.” I relayed her words to the sheriff, and got a sigh of relief.
“Well, that’s one less bunch of asshats we have to deal with. I’ve already run into Ricky Vernon a time or two since I started. He’s a real piece of work,” Willis said.
“For somebody from out of town, you’r catching on to life in the Upstate real quick, Sheriff,” I said with a laugh. “You think Ricky’s something, you should have met his Granddaddy.” Ulysses Vernon died when I was a little girl, but he made one serious impression the few times I met him. He was a huge man, with a long white beard that cascaded down over his overalls, completely covering up the t-shirt he wore. I never saw him wear shoes, even when he drove his old truck up to the house a dropped off a peach crate full of white liquor to my daddy.
Daddy would put cherries in that jar of liquor and let it sit on a shelf for about three weeks while he finished off Old Ulysses’ last delivery, and about the time Daddy was out of liquor, the cherries had soaked into the moonshine and cut the taste just enough to make it drinkable. Daddy got a case of ‘shine every two months from Ulysses until he drove his truck off the side of the road and wrapped it around a tree. Ricky took up the family business after his Granddaddy died, his own daddy having got killed in Vietnam, but the younger Vernon never had the nose for making liquor like his father did. I still got a case from Ricky every now and then, but half a dozen quart jars would last me almost a year, and I stuck cinnamon sticks in mine and let them dissolve all the way down before I drank the firewater.
“I’ll meet you at the schoolhouse at nine-thirty. That oughta give me enough time to get some breakfast and get a shower. Then we can talk to young Mr. Vernon about his fascination with cheerleaders.” Sheriff Dunleavy’s voice jerked me out of my trip down memory lane, and I took a sip of coffee.
“I’ll be there, Sheriff. Let’s get this boy behind bars and find some justice for those girls.” It all sounded so simple. But my life has never been simple.