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 was sitting at my dining room table, going over the pictures of Shelly’s car for what felt like the twentieth time, when I heard a car pull up in front of my house. Heavy footsteps pounded up my steps, and there was a sharp knock on my door.
I walked to the front door, careful to keep an eye on the shotgun leaning against the wall, but relaxed when I recognized Willis’ form through the curtains. I pulled open the door to find him standing there on my front stoop holding a brown paper bag and wearing a goofy grin.
“I brought lunch,” he said, breezing right past me like he owned the place. “I figure if this morning pissed you off anything like it did me you’ve been up to your eyeballs in case files all morning and didn’t even realize it was two o’clock.”
My stomach answered for me, letting out a noisy rumble at the smells coming from the sack he carried. “I’ll get some tea. Come wash your hands and get some paper plates. The dining room table is covered up, so we’ll eat in the kitchen.”
He followed me through the dining room into the kitchen and set his bag down on the stove. I looked at my worn brown Tupperware tumblers and decided to use the good glasses, the ones made out of actual glass, for a change. Admittedly, they were old Smurfs glasses I got at the Hardee’s drive-thru twenty years ago, but I thought they were at least a little upgrade from the Tupperware. Mama taught me to put my best foot forward, and I’m sure she was rolling over in her grave at the fact that my idea of putting my best foot forward was choosing the Smurf glasses over the Tupperware. My mama and I never were on the same page as far as my feminine wiles went.
Willis laughed as I walked to the table holding out the cartoon glasses. “I see we’re using the good china.”
“I don’t scrimp when company comes,” I replied. “Now don’t give me no crap, or I’ll make you drink out of a Solo cup.”
“I don’t mind a solo cup. Now, I don’t know what you like, so I just got a couple of sandwiches, and if there’s one you don’t like, I’ll eat it.”
“What did you bring?” I asked.
“I stopped by the Grill and got a couple of cheeseburgers, a BLT, and a barbecue sandwich, with two orders of french fries.”
“That sounds great,” I said, turning back to the fridge. I pulled out a couple of squeeze bottles of condiments, a jar of homemade sweet pickles, and some Duke’s mayonnaise. Willis passed me a plate and we spread out the sandwiches between us. We each took a burger and some fries, and I cut the barbecue sandwich in half and put one piece on my plate.
“I’ll take the other piece,” Willis said, holding out his hand. Our fingers brushed as I passed it to him, and I looked up to see his ears blushing. I ducked my head so he wouldn’t see the flush on my own cheeks, silently kicking myself for acting like a nervous schoolgirl.
“Well, you’re right,” I said after I’d taken the edge off my hunger with half a cheeseburger and some fries. “I’ve been up to my eyeballs in case files all morning, and I don’t have any more of a clue than I did when we walked out of the school.”
“Me neither,” he admitted. “I hoped we could talk through some things after lunch and maybe come up with something. Is Jenny around?”
“No, and I haven’t seen Sheriff Johnny in a while, either. Jenny went over to the graveyard to talk to the Triplets, but I don’t know where Johnny is.”
I explained about Helen, Faye, and Frances, and he laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “They sound like three peas in a pod.”
“Oh Lord, you ain’t wrong. They were thick as thieves in life, and death hasn’t made them like each other any less.”
“That’s kinda sweet, ain’t it?” He asked, a thoughtful expression crossing his face.
I swallowed a mouthful of barbecue and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, here you’ve got three women who were such good friends in life that they’re still spending all their time together even after they’ve passed. And you’ve got somebody like Sheriff Johnny, who loved his town so much that he wouldn’t leave even after death. He still wants to keep an eye on things, even though he can’t really do a whole lot about it now. It’s nice, you know? Says a lot of good things about a place, that people care that much about it.”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that,” I admitted. “I reckon when you spend your whole life seeing dead people and trying to help them move on, you don’t stop to think too much about what would make somebody want to stay.” I chewed my sandwich for a minute or two more in silence, then picked up my napkin from my lap and laid it across the plate.
“I surrender,” I said. “If I eat another bite I won’t be good for nothing the rest of the day. Do you want to take that BLT back to the office? Eat it later?”
“I’ll see if Jeff wants it, but he probably won’t touch it. He’s real particular about his food.”
“Always has been,” I said. “Even when he was little, he had to have the crusts cut off his bread, and the sandwiches cut into little triangles. He always wanted plates with dividers, so his food didn’t touch. He’s real particular about most everything.”
Willis laughed. “God knows that’s the truth. I borrowed a pen from his desk one day and you would have thought the world was gonna end. I even walked over to the cabinet and handed him two to replace it, but it wasn’t the right pen. I haven’t touched his desk since. Just ain’t worth upsetting the apple cart.”
“His mama was like that, too. She was in charge of the bulletins at church for the longest time, and they were always beautiful, but heaven help you if they didn’t get folded just right. I watched her rip a deacon up on side and down the other one morning because he told her it wasn’t a big deal.”
“I bet he didn’t make that mistake again,” Willis said, chuckling. He stood up and put the spare sandwich in the paper bag, and looked at me. “Where’s the trash can? I’ll throw away the plates if you’ll fix us a couple more glasses of tea.”
I pointed to the sink. “Under there. Drop the plates in there and let’s go to the dining room. Maybe together we can see something in all this mess.” I opened the freezer and dropped a few more ice cubes in each glass, then topped off the tea and followed him into the dining room. I passed him his Papa Smurf glass and set my Smurfette glass down on a coaster.
“You got another one of those?”
“Smurfette glass? No, I just got the one set. I got Papa Smurf, Smurfette, Brainy Smurf, and Gargamel and that cat of his.”
“Aural,” he said. “But I meant a coaster.”
“Oh!” I grabbed him a coaster and sat down behind the stack of folders. “Where should we start?”
“Let’s look at your suspect list compared to mine, and see who I have an alibi for already,” he said. He leaned over and picked up a slim black briefcase I never even noticed him set down on the floor. An iPad and a portable keyboard appeared, and he looked up at me.
“Aren’t we Mr. Technology?” I teased.
“I’m old. Lila Grace, but I ain’t dumb. This thing is the best thing that’s happened to law enforcement since the bulletproof vest. Camera, communication device, and all my case files right in one place. I don’t know how I caught any bad guys without it.”
“Might have involved more running, old man,” I said with a grin and a poke to his belly.
“Hey!” he protested. “I’m a Sheriff now, I don’t have to run. I have people for that.”
“You have Jeff for that,” I corrected. “I’ve seen Jeff run. It looks like a cross between a very slow ostrich and a demented hippopotamus. That boy is a lot of things, but coordinated and athletic are not any of them.”
He laughed and nodded. “Jeff is an invaluable asset to the department, but he ain’t gonna win any 40-yard dashes, that’s for sure. Now, who do you have on your list that still looks good to you?”
“Well, there are the girls that didn’t make the cheerleading squad, but double homicide seems a bridge too far even for a heartbroken teenage girl, and I’ve seen some things in that regard.”
Willis looked like he was about to say something, but shook his head like he was changing the topic and said, “We talked to all the girls who tried out the past two years and didn’t make the squad. All but one of them had an alibi, and she was so tore up I can’t imagine it was her. Turns out Jenny was actually working with her some weekends to get better so she could audition again next year.”
“That definitely doesn’t sound like anybody with enough of an axe to grind to murder someone,” I said. “What about the kids from the church beach trip last year? Reverend Turner seems to think there may have been some alcohol involved, and possibly even…” I lowered my voice. “Sex.”
The sheriff grinned, but shook his head. “There were only half a dozen people on the trip in addition to Jenny and Shelly, and three of them were girls we’d already cleared. The three boys all have solid alibis. Turns out in a town this size, it’s pretty easy to account for most everybody’s whereabouts on a Friday night after a home football game.”
“Most of the underage population is either in the parking lot of McDonald’s, the parking lot of the high school, or over at the dam parking,” I said.
“Some of them have started going out to the landfill now,” he added.
“That’s a new one on me, making out at the trash dump.”
“The older section of the landfill is pretty nice. They’ve put down sod and landscaped it. I think the county is talking about building a golf course out there once they get one or two more sections filled up,” Willis said.
“I think I’ll stick to making out in the comfort of my own home, thank you.”
“Is that an invitation, Ms. Carter?” He asked. “Because I have to remind you, I’m still on duty.”
I smiled at him, enjoying the flirting. “Why Sheriff, I thought you were on your lunch break.” I batted my eyes at him, then laughed out loud at the flush that crept up his cheeks.
“Lila Grace, you might be the single most infuriating woman I have ever met, and I was married. Twice!” He spluttered, laughing a little.
“Twice, huh.” I said.
“Yep,” he said. “Three times, if you count being married to The Job, which both of my wives accused me of on more than one occasion.”
“What happened?” I asked.
He sighed, then looked at me for a second, like he was making up his mind. “Well, I reckon we oughta go ahead and get this all out in the open. The first time I got married, I was twenty-three years old, full of piss and vinegar and raring to arrest every bad guy in the world. Gina, that was my wife’s name, was a great gal, good-looking, good cook, good job as a CPA for some high-rise accounting firm downtown.”
“What happened?” I repeated.
He gave me one of those “I’m getting to that” looks that men get when you’re trying to get them to talk about something they don’t want to talk about, usually their feelings on something deeper than football.
“She got pregnant and wanted me to leave the force. Said she couldn’t see herself raising a kid not knowing if I was going to walk through the door at the end of my shift or not. I didn’t want to quit, but she was dead set on it, so I filled out the paperwork. I was going to work security in the building where she worked, getting fat and watching security cameras.”
“But that didn’t happen,” I said.
“No, that didn’t happen. She lost the baby, and there were complications from the miscarriage that made her unable to get pregnant again. I stayed home with her for a week, then she practically pushed me out the front door to go back to work.” He looked at me with a sheepish grin. “I’m not real good at sitting still now, and this was thirty years ago. You can imagine what I was like then.”
“I’d rather not,” I said with a smile so he knew I was just teasing.
“So I went back to work, and after another week or so she went back to work, and we settled back into our everyday lives, then one day I come home and she’s standing in the kitchen with my paperwork to leave the force in her hand. She starts screaming at me about why I haven’t put in my notice yet, and how I don’t care about her if I’m going to keep putting my life in danger, and all this stuff about how me being a cop is selfish, and I’m just standing there with my mouth hanging open like a trout laying on a dock.”
He took a deep breath, then dove back in. “When she lost the baby, all the thoughts of leaving police work went out of my head. To me, that was the only reason I was quitting, and now that we weren’t going to have a kid, I figured I’d just be a cop the rest of my life. But to her, me leaving the force was more about her feelings and a lot less about the kid thing.”
“I see both sides,” I said, not wanting to step on his fragile ego and tell him that he was an idiot. He probably already had that much figured out.
“Yeah, and I was a kid, too. I’d see things a lot differently now, but back then, I could barely see past the end of my own nose. So we had a huge fight, and she threw me out. Told me I had to choose being a cop or being married, that I couldn’t be both. And, being stupid, and stubborn, and twenty-four, I became another statistic about cop marriages.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But at least you had her for a little while.” I didn’t mean to throw that out there. Didn’t mean to make it about me, but the look of pity that flashed across his face for just a second told me that’s exactly what I’d done.
“Yeah, I had a couple of good years with her, and a few really bad months, but all in all it turned out for the best in the end. She married a guy who moved up to become the CFO of that company she worked for, and she quit working at thirty-five to take care of three adopted kids and do charity work. We haven’t spoken in years, but I get a Christmas card every year.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “At least it ended up good. What about your second wife?”
His face darkened, and I knew that we’d crossed into a topic he wasn’t very comfortable with. “That’s a much uglier story. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
His words were telling me to say no, but his eyes told the story of a man who really needed to talk. I leaned forward, put my hand over his, and said, “Talk to me, Willis.”