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’m in the dining room!” I called out in response the knock on the front door. “Shit,” I muttered, looking at my watch. It was half past six, so that must be Willis. Sure enough, his broad shoulders filled the space in my doorway almost to the point of blotting out the last rays of late afternoon sun right about the same time I realized what time it was. He was grinning like a high school boy that just got his first car, but his smile melted when he got a good look at me and the mess I was in the middle of.
Pork chops and mashed potatoes were not steaming on the table, that’s for damn sure. The only thing on my dining room table were manila folders and crime scene photos, and they were spread out all over the place like a paperwork grenade went off in my house.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really thought I’d have dinner ready, but I got to looking through all this stuff, and then Jenny and Sheriff Johnny came and started going over it all with me…” I waved a hand at where Jenny sat at the other end of the table, Johnny by her side. They looked up from the coroner’s report they were poring over, waved absently like they thought Willis could see them, then went back to the paper. I didn’t know what they thought was so interesting in that report, we’d read it three times.
“Don’t worry about it,” Willis said, year of marriage almost making him good enough to hide his disappointment. Almost. Oh well, if he had wanted to go out with a normal girl, he wouldn’t have come over for lunch with the town psychic crackpot. He sat down at the nearest chair and glanced over the mess. “What have we got?”
“Nothing,” I said. “And not just the normal ‘I don’t know what’s going on here’ nothing. According to Johnny, these photos look like the scene was scrubbed by somebody who knows what they’re doing.” I pointed to three photos that Johnny had picked out for me. “Look here. There should be footprints here if the killed broke into the Miller house by the basement window, like y’all think he did.”
The photo showed the exterior area of the Miller home. A basement window was nestled in the wall a few inches above ground level, and I knew from looking at the other pictures that the window wasn’t locked. Jenny said she didn’t know anything about whether or not it was usually open, because she ever went down into the basement. So it could have been left open for days or more. In front of the window was a small strip of bare dirt, then a small fifteen-by-forty vegetable garden that Mrs. Miller kept to have some fresh tomatoes, green beans, squash, and one watermelon plant that overproduced so much the poor woman had to put a folding table up in their yard loaded down with watermelon sporting a sign that said “FREE – Take One! Please!”
In any kind of normal world, there would have been footprints or at least some kind of trace of the killer’s passing left either in the dirt right in front of the window, or in the garden itself. But there was nothing. No rain fell in the few days between Jenny’s death and the realization that she hadn’t actually had a fatal accident, so that wasn’t to blame. There was no other way to get to the window, unless Spider-Man was the murderer, and I hadn’t heard of anyone named Peter Parker having a grudge against the Miller family.
“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Willis said, looking at the pictures. “I thought of that.”
“You did?” I asked. “Why didn’t you say anything to me?”
“Mostly because I wanted to see if you came to the same conclusion,” he admitted. “I don’t like what this implies.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. I didn’t, either. I thought any way of narrowing the suspect pool from everyone who ever came in contact with Jenny or happened to be passing through town that night would be positive progress.
“It makes me think that someone with law enforcement experience of some sort maybe be the killer,” Willis said.
“Well, isn’t that good?” I asked. I was still confused. There couldn’t be that many people with law enforcement experience…”Oh,” I said.
“You got there, didn’t you?”
“I see why you don’t want it to be anyone n law enforcement.”
“Not only do I not want to think that a man that has carried the badge could murder two high school girls in cold blood, I certainly don’t want to think that it might be somebody I know and trust.”
“Well,” I said, not wanting to say what we were both thinking. “I reckon that means we need to see who all in town has worked security on jobs in the past or maybe served as an MP sometime.”
Willis let out a breath, relief flooding his face. “Yeah, that’s good. That’s a good idea. I can call the local Army Reserves and National Guard units. They’ll have records of any former or active-duty personnel with law enforcement training.”
“I’ll touch base with my second cousin Janice over at the Marine recruiting station. She can get me the information on Navy and Marines.” Willis stood up, and I reached out to grab his arm. He turned and looked down at me.
I stood up, very close to him. I could smell the very lightest hints of his cologne, still clinging to his shirt collar after hours of work. “Later,” I said, my lips almost grazing his chin. I let my breath carry across his neck, and smiled at the shiver he gave.
“But…” his protest was a token, and we both knew it.
“Later,” I said, more firmly. I poked him in the chest and pushed him back a step. “Now get out of my way, Sheriff. I promised a good-looking man pork chops for supper, and at my age you do not want to disappoint the most eligible bachelor to move into the county in thirty years.”
I stepped past him, dodging his oncoming kiss, and ducked into the kitchen to start mixing up the flour for the pork chops.
“You’ve known him a long time, do you think Jeff could do something like this?” Willis asked, pushing back from the table, a pair of decimated pork chop bones all that remained of a helping plate of home-cooked food.
I thought about my answer for long seconds before I let out a sigh. “I don’t know. If I’m being honest, I’d have to say I can’t think of anybody in town that I would think could kill two little girls like that. But I wouldn’t have thought that Jerry Westmoreland would run a still in the woods behind his house until his sister died and told me all about it. I wouldn’t have thought that Alexander Lee Evans would have driven drunk and totaled his mama’s car, then blamed it on a random car thief, but that’s what he told me happened. So I reckon you just can’t ever tell with people.”
“I don’t think he’s good for these murders, but we’ll have to take a real good look at him. I know he was working the football game the night Jenny was killed, because he works every home game.”
“That doesn’t really do anything to clear him,” I said. “By the time Jenny got home, Jeff would have had plenty of time to direct traffic out of the school parking lot and get over to her house.”
“Yeah, it’s not like it’s a long drive. He wouldn’t even have to speed.”
“Or worry about being seen if he was in his patrol car. It’s totally normal for the local boys to be running around town arresting speeders or breaking up parties and fights after home games. He could have parked right in front of the Miller house and no one would even notice.”
“Or think to mention it when we interviewed the neighbors,” Willis growled. “I’m having a hard time with this, Lila Grace, I gotta admit. I know I’m new here, but Jeff doesn’t seem like the type to hurt anybody. I had my concerns about his ability to use his sidearm when I took over the office.”
“I know, Willis, I know. He’s a gentle soul. I’ll agree with you there. I was surprised when he decided to go to work for Sheriff Johnny in the first place. He never showed any inclination toward law enforcement when he was little.”
“How old was he when you taught him?” he asked.
“I taught Jeff in Sunday School from fourth grade all the way through high school, off and on. I floated back and forth among the grades as other teachers came and went. Since I’d been doing it forever, I just filled in for a year or two wherever there was a need. And I reckon I taught him in Vacation Bible School for almost that long. Most of the kids stop going to Bible School when they get to high school, but Jeff stayed involved with the church youth programs right up until he joined the Sheriff’s Department.”
Willis sat back, looking up at the ceiling light like he hoped there was some kind of answer written there. I could have told him there wasn’t nothing in that ceiling light but a couple of dead mosquitoes and some spiderwebs I hadn’t got around to cleaning, but I let it go. If he wanted to use my shortcomings as a housekeeper to inspire his deductions, so be it.
“Who else?” He asked, not taking his eyes off the ceiling.
“Who else what?” I replied, not having a single idea what he was asking. Sometimes I wonder how men communicate with each other, since they always want to try to use two words to ask a ten-word question. When they’re alone with one another, do they just grunt and scratch themselves? I don’t really want to know, I reckon.
“Who else has any military or law enforcement experience in town?”
“Oh good Lord, Willis, you might have to narrow it down a little more than that. There ain’t a whole lot of people who’ve been police, but just about every grown man in town has served at least one tour in the service, one branch or another. And everybody here can shoot, and drive, and has watched way more CSI and Law & Order than is healthy.”
“I know that, Lila Grace,” he snapped, then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I just want to make sure we’re not missing anybody. Who has recent military experience, and might have been in school with the girls. If there’s somebody that graduated when they were freshmen, he could have gone off to serve, and come back recently.”
“Well, Josh Massey just got back from Afghanistan a few months ago, and he’s just about twenty-one, so he would have known the girls in school, but he didn’t do this.”
“How can you be sure?” Willis asked.
“He left a foot back in Afghanistan and is still learning to walk again. He won’t get his first prosthetic for another month or two,” I said.
“Yep, he’s out. Anybody else?”
“Leonard Furting enlisted right out of high school, and there was some talk that it was because he got Barbara Harding pregnant. She never had a baby, though, and Leonard’s been walking around with Jennifer Campbell ever since he got home. I don’t think he knew Jenny or FRIEND NAME, but I’m not sure.”
“Well, we’ll look into him. Anybody else?”
“I can’t think of anybody else right off the top of my head. I mean, there’s Gerald Comer, he was the deputy before Jeff, but he’s better than seventy now. Gerald’s son Erskine grew up around the department and the station, but he’s over three hundred pounds and walks with a limp. He ain’t any more likely to sneak up on Jenny in her basement than he is to run a marathon.”
Willis chuckled and got up from the table. He started clearing the table, and I stood to help. He motioned me to sit. “No ma’am. You cooked, I clean. You just tell me where the trash can is and I’ll throw these scraps out.”
“Just pitch those out the back door,” I said. “Professor Snape will take care of them.”
“Professor Snape?” He turned to look at me. “Does the ghost of Alan Rickman haunt your garbage?”
I laughed out loud, throwing my head back and about falling out of my chair. “Oh sweet Jesus, Willis Dunleavy, you are a wonder! No, Professor Snape is what I’ve taken to calling this fat raccoon that prowls my backyard at night. If I toss him the scraps from my dinner, he doesn’t go rummaging around in my garbage can. And he keeps the snakes away.”
“Why Professor Snape?”
“I was watching the first Harry Potter movie when he appeared in my window one night. Scared the fire out of me, just in a scene where Snape was yelling at Harry about something. So I called him Professor Snape. Sometimes if we’re getting along particularly well I call him Severus.”
“You are a strange, strange woman, Lila Grace Carter,” Willis said. “She talks to ghosts and names wild raccoons.”
“Don’t forget seduces police officers,” I teased.
“I haven’t forgotten,” he said, and the smoldering gaze he turned on me said he might not be teasing.