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 sat down at a table in the far corner of The Grill, the only restaurant in Maple Grove, and Willis nodded to most of the patrons. Everybody in the place recognized us, and there was more than one whispered conversation that started up as soon as we sat down.
“Do you want me to go listen to what they’re saying?” Jenny asked, a gleam in her translucent eye. I had the distinct impression that child was enjoying this whole undead detective thing more than just about anything she’d enjoyed while she was alive.
I shook my head, looking at Willis, but talking to Jenny. “No, sweetie, there ain’t no point. I can just about tell you what they’re saying. Beth Shillington over there is telling her husband Harold that she heard I danced around nekkid in my back yard under the full moon to get my power to talk to dead people. Harold is gonna nod and tell her that he saw the two of us at Shorty’s together yesterday. Then Beth is gonna get on him for going to Shorty’s after she has done told him not to drink during the week on account of how much it cost them to get out of his last DUI.”
I jerked my head at a table with half a dozen elderly women sitting by the window. “That over there is Helen’s Sunday School class. They’ll be talking about how sinful it is for us to be dining together, an unmarried woman and man breaking bread being nothing but temptation to fornication and all.” I very studiously did not look at Willis when I said “fornication,” but I felt the tips of my ears get red anyway. “This despite the fact that three of those women are carrying on with unmarried men themselves, and two of them are sleeping, unbeknownst to the other, with the same man!”
Jenny burst out laughing so hard she almost fell through her chair, and Willis looked at me with his eyebrows up. “And how exactly did you come by this knowledge, Lila Grace?”
I just smiled at him. “Willis, darling, I’m the only living person those three old dead busybodies have to gossip to. Where in the world do you think I got the information?”
“I don’t know, but can we revisit the idea of you dancing around nude under the full moon?” He smiled, and his grin only grew as I felt my cheeks flame.
“No, we cannot,” I said, unrolling my napkin from around my silverware and placing it in my lap. “Unless you’ve got a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle stashed somewhere in your office. You come up with some top-shelf bourbon, Sheriff, and we can certainly have a conversation.” I gave him what I hoped was a flirtatious smile, but it had been so long since I flirted I couldn’t promise any level of proficiency with it.
Just then I was saved my Renee Walkin coming up to the table, her little notepad in hand. Renee was married to Phillip Walkin, who owned The Grill, and she was the chief waitress, hostess, silverware roller, floor sweeper, and doer of everything else that didn’t involve the kitchen. Phillip ran the kitchen like he was a redneck Gordon Ramsey, and their son Phil Jr. was the dishwasher. I knew Renee and Phillip had high hopes for Junior taking over the place when they retired, but I’d never seen Phil Jr. aspire to anything more than catching enough fish to keep his belly full.
“Morning, Lila Grace, Sheriff,” Renee said with a smile. She always had a kind word for me, ever since we were kids. She was a couple years behind me in school, and we were never real close, but she was one of the few people in town who never made fun of me or looked at me funny. I asked her about that one time, and she just said “I was told to treat people like I wanted to be treated. I don’t like it when people are mean to me, so I try not to be mean to other people.” The world could use a few more Renees.
“Morning, Renee,” I said. “Anything special today?”
“We got blueberry pancakes, but they ain’t real good. I think the blueberries ain’t quite ready yet. But I’ve got a few chocolate chip pancakes left if you want something sweet.”
“I think I’ll just do two eggs over medium, with bacon, grits, and one of them big old cat-head biscuits you got back there.”
“I can do that,” she said with a smile. “What about you, Sheriff?”
Willis looked at me like I was speaking French, then asked, “What in the world is a cat-head biscuit?”
Renee and I both laughed, drawing more nasty looks from the Sunday School biddies, and Jenny looked confused too. “It just means it’s a great big ol’ biscuit, Sheriff. I don’t use no biscuit cutter, so my biscuits alway turn out too big, and not real round, so they look about the size and shape of a cat’s head,” Renee said.
“I assure you, Fluffy was not harmed in the making of Renee’s biscuits,” I added.
Willis smiled and said, “Then I’ll have two eggs, scrambled, with double bacon, hash browns, and a biscuit. It can be the size of whatever animal you see fit.” He gave Renee a warm smile to let her know he wasn’t picking on her for talking country, and she walked off with a grin.
“I like her,” he said. “She’s funny.”
“She’s a good woman,” I said. “She’s done a good job raising her kids, and keeping Phillip in line. I swear, to know him growing up you never would have thought that boy would turn out to amount to nothing.”
“Why’s that?” Jenny asked. Her face was a little glum, and I wasn’t sure if it was because she wasn’t going to grow up, or just because she had to sit there smelling all that good food and couldn’t eat any of it.
“Well,” I said. “He raised plenty of hell back in his day, wildcattin’ around with the boys. He once wrecked two identical cars in the same curve on the same road, a year apart, driving like a bat out of hell on these back country roads. I reckon if you would have asked me when I was twenty who I knew that was least likely to see thirty, it would have been Phillip Walkin. But here he is, a respected businessman, father, and I think he’s a deacon over at the ARP church. Just goes to show you can’t never tell.”
“Yeah, I reckon not,” Jenny said. She stood up, and drifted off. “I’m going to go talk to the ladies at the cemetery and see if we can come up with anything else. I’ll meet you back at the house later.”
“Okay, honey. I’ll see you in a little while,” I said, still trying to look at Willis while I talked to her spirit.
“She okay?” Willis asked.
“I don’t know. I know she was real disappointed when Ian turned out to be innocent. He was a good suspect, and if he turned out to be guilty, she could move on. I think she might be starting to feel the permanence of the whole thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Some spirits don’t really get that it’s forever at first. It takes some time, and when they do, they have to adjust to that. It’s hard, especially if they were real active in life and had a lot going on, like Jenny did.”
“She was real young, too,” he added.
“Yeah, that can have something to do with it. I’m not sure it always does, but it can.”
We finished our breakfast and left, Willis nodding to even more people on the way out. He dropped me by my truck back at the high school and headed to the police station to review crime scene photos and forensics from Shelly’s car.
I went home and found Jenny and Sheriff Johnny sitting on my porch swing. I sat on the rocker beside them. “Hey, Jenny,” I said.
“Hey.” She didn’t look at me.
“I reckon you’re disappointed with how this morning turned out.”
“Yeah.” Monosyllabic answers is one of the reasons I was glad I never had teenagers, and why I stuck to teaching elementary school kids in Sunday School. I’ve never known how young’uns that will mouth off at the drop of a hat can become almost mute whenever you try to ask them a question.
“Well, we ain’t giving up, sweetie. Ian was a good suspect, he had all the reasons in the world to hate y’all, he just didn’t do it. But we’ll figure out who did, I promise.”
Sheriff Johnny’s head snapped around to me, and he wiggled his fingers in the air. “I know, Johnny. I ain’t supposed to make promises I don’t know if I can keep. But I’m going to do everything I can to keep this one. This child has done made herself important to me, and I don’t like the idea of disappointing her.”
He nodded, and stood up, walking through the front door into my house. I sat there for a few seconds before he stuck his head and torso through the wall and waved at me to follow him.
“I swear, child, if I live to be a hundred, I will never get used to that.”
Johnny wiggled his fingers at me, and I feigned anger at him. “No, Johnny, I am not already a hundred! Dammit, old man, if you don’t quit wiggling them smartass fingers at me, I’ll wiggle one back at you!” I got up and mock-stomped into the house, but I noticed Jenny cover her mouth to hide a giggle as I did.
Johnny was standing by the back door when I got to the kitchen, kinda looking around everything. “What do you see, Johnny?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t see anything, either,” I said.
He wiggled his fingers at me. “That is a little strange. You’re right, there’s nothing here. It ain’t just like the guy who broke in wore gloves, it’s like he didn’t leave any mud or anything behind. That’s pretty good for a high school kid, ain’t it?”
Johnny nodded, then made a sweeping arm motion around the kitchen. “Yeah, there ain’t a speck of mud or nothing. And it ain’t like I stayed up late to mop the kitchen, neither. Just swept up the broken glass in put if in Sheriff Dunleavy’s evidence bags. But there wasn’t a single scrap of dirt or fabric left behind. Whoever did this knew what they were about. This wasn’t their first rodeo. I reckon I oughta go see if I can figure out what I’ve got in the dining room that was worth them breaking in here.”
I went into the dining room and sat down in front of a stack of folders. These files were copies of all the crime scene photos and police reports from Jenny’s basement, both visits, and from Shelly’s car. I spent a solid three hours digging through those files, and didn’t find much.
Both girls died of broken necks, which made sense for Jenny, since she got pushed down the stairs, but not as much for Shelly. Jenny’s house showed no signs of forced entry, and so far the police had no idea where Shelly was killed. The time in the water pretty much destroyed any trace evidence that might have been in Shelly’s car, and the time that passed between her death and it being ruled a homicide meant that there was no real evidence available in Jenny’s basement either. Whoever killed these girls was the worst kind of person – ruthless and smart.