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.
Willis left a little while after he finished the dishes. We kissed on the couch for a bit, but things didn’t move any further than that. I felt like it wasn’t right to sleep with a man while we were trying to catch a murderer together, and to be honest, I was a little nervous. It had been quite a while since I’d lain with a man, and I wasn’t sure how fast was too fast, or too slow, or what I wanted out of things with Sheriff Willis Dunleavy. I knew I liked him, I enjoyed his company, and having a man who knew how clean up after himself was certainly welcome. I just didn’t know how serious I wanted to be, how serious I was prepared to be.
So I did what I always do when I’m all mixed up in my head about things; I went for a walk. I only ever end up one place. I go there so often it’s almost like there’s a path leading from my front door to the entrance. I ended up at the cemetery beside Woodbridge Presbyterian Church again, walking through the rows of stones with familiar names, lost in my thoughts.
I ended up sitting on a headstone marked “Good,” with two names etched in it, many years apart. There was a smaller stone set into the ground beside it, marked for Tina Good, Daughter, aged eight years when she passed. It had been many years since I’d seen my old friend Tina, but I talked to her often. This was one of the few times I felt normal, when I could go to a cemetery and not expect anyone to talk back to me. I’d watched Tina cross over with her mama, all those years ago, and she was looking down on me from a better place, just like so many people say about their deceased relatives. Unlike those people, I knew my friend wasn’t still there, so I could tell her anything and not worry about getting an answer.
But I couldn’t avoid the dead. Even in the far corner of the cemetery, they found me. The Dead Old Ladies’ Detective Agency, as they’d taken to calling themselves, gathered around me about twenty minutes after I started my visit with Tina.
“What do we know new, Lila Grace?” Miss Faye’s voice was sharp, like her piercing blue eyes, and quick, the way she had moved in life. She was all spiky energy and short, intense bursts of conversation.
“I don’t know much, Miss Faye,” I replied. “We’re pretty sure the killer knows something about police work, or maybe was in the military. He could have been an MP, I guess.”
“What makes you say that?” Miss Helen’s slow drawl always reminded me of a sweet old milk cow, never in a hurry about anything, just taking the world in. Her slow speech masked a sharp mind, though. She said less than the other women, but missed nothing, and it was always best to listen when she talked.
“He didn’t leave any tracks or forensic evidence, even at Jenny’s house. That murder was staged to look like an accident. If there’s any crime scene that would naturally be sloppy, that’s the one. But he took just as much care to cover his tracks there as with OTHER GIRL’s murder.”
“Then have you brought him in yet?” Miss Frances asked. She stood with her arms crossed. “I’m assuming not, since you’re here, but why not?” Miss Frances was a force to be reckoned with, even in death.
“We don’t have any evidence that Jeff did it,” I said.
“Well, not until you bring him in and he confesses,” Miss Frances said. “A few hours in the back of that police station with a rubber hose and he’ll sing like a canary.”
“You’ll have to excuse Frances,” Miss Helen said. “She likes to snoop in Julia McKnight’s old house and watch the old movies through the window. They’ve been playing a lot of old police movies this week.”
“We can’t beat a confession out of him,” I said. “What if he’s innocent? He’s a respected member of the community and a police officer. He has no reason to hurt those girls.”
“Not those girls, no,” Miss Faye agreed. “But he sure did have a reason to wish ill on Jenny Miller’s mama.”
“What about my mother?” Jenny asked, appearing beside me. Most ghosts can’t just pop from place to place, but Jenny was a strong spirit, with some extraordinary ability.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Miss Faye said, demurring. “I shouldn’t speak ill of the living.”
“It’s not speaking ill if it helps us catch a murderer,” I said. “If you know some connection between Jeff and Jenny’s mother, you need to tell us.”
“Now don’t get feisty, young lady,” the fiery ghost shot back. “Just because you’re still up and walking around visible, doesn’t mean you can smart off to your elders.”
I took a deep breath. She was right in one sense. I couldn’t force them to do anything, so I needed to keep the ghosts happy. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I was rude. Was there something you wanted to tell us about Jeff and Jenny’s mom? Were they connected somehow?”
“You didn’t know Tara Withrow when she was little, did you? Of course not, the Baptists don’t mingle too much, so you wouldn’t have taught her in Vacation Bible School. Well, she was a gorgeous child, grew up a little bit wild and a little bit too fast, if you know what I mean.” She made a gesture in front of her chest to indicate breasts, just in case I had even the slightest chance of missing her meaning.
She went on. “Well, Tara was a very pretty girl, and very popular, and she was always with the other popular boys and girls. The cheerleaders, the football players, the student council president, all of those things. Jeff…Jeff ran in a different circle, let’s say. He wasn’t the most popular boy in school, and he wasn’t quite smart enough to be useful to the popular kids, so he got a lot of teasing.”
“How do you know all this?” Jenny asked.
“Oh, honey, I was the secretary of the high school for thirty years. There was nothing that happened under that roof that I didn’t know about.” I knew from personal experience that between her and her two cohorts, their knowledge extended far past the schoolhouse walls, too.
“Senior year, Tara and some of her best girlfriends played a cruel prank on poor Jeff. He followed that child around for years like a puppy, mooning after her, carrying her books, giving her rides places when whatever boyfriend she was dating either got tired of carting her around or had something else to do, all sorts of stuff. I’m sorry, honey, but your mama was not the sweetest person when she was a teenager.”
“Good lord, Faye, who is? I seem to recall you beating up half the boy’s baseball team in ninth grade because they told you to join the softball team with the other girls,” Miss Helen’s drawl cut across the night.
Faye grinned at her, a fierce, wolfish thing. “I had a better fastball than that Bolin boy ever dreamed of having, and a strike zone too small for any of them to hit. They should have let me play, and they could have been state champions.”
I cleared my throat, and Miss Faye’s attention snapped back to the story. “Anyway, Tara and Gene Gilfillan had just broke up for what she swore was the last time, on account of him getting drunk down at the dam and making out with my cousin Winifred on a picnic table. I loved her, but Winnie was a pure-T slut when she was young. So Tara was single around March, and it was prom season. All the senior girls were buying dresses, and making plans, and here was Tara, queen bee of the cheerleading squad, without a date. So she gets a bright idea to soak poor old Jeff for a night on the town with all her friends.”
“Now, hold on a minute,” Jenny said. “How do you know that’s what she was thinking? Maybe she just felt bad for him and wanted to give him a night where he felt good about himself.”
Faye looked at her, and I could feel the “oh, honey” in her eyes before she opened her mouth. “Oh, honey,” she said. I knew it was coming. “Oh, honey” is almost as ubiquitous as “bless your heart” as a synonym for “you poor, ignorant bastard” in the South. It’s not quite as insulting. But close. “Didn’t I say there wasn’t nothing going on in that high school I didn’t know about? Two of the other cheerleaders, I don’t remember both their names, but Ellen Nance was one of them, well they were office monitors sixth period that spring, and I would hear them talk about everything under the sun. And that included what Tara was doing to Jeff.”
“Now, I ain’t saying that the boy didn’t get something out of it, too. Not like that, Lila Grace, don’t look at me like that. Tara wasn’t that kind of girl. But it did Jeff a world of good to be seen going to the movies with the popular kids, and to have it known all over school that he was going to the prom with the prettiest girl in the county.”
Jenny beamed a little at hearing how pretty her mother was in her youth. Maybe in some way that balanced out hearing that she was a royal bitch as a teenager, in some odd kind of mental ledger than only teenage girls understand.
“So prom night came, and Jeff and Tara went out to dinner in Rock Hill with all of Tara’s friends, and there was a limo, and there were group pictures, and she looked beautiful in her dress, and Jeff cleaned up pretty well in his tuxedo and matching vest. I’d say he was downright dapper.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” I said.
“Oh, darling, do you ever,” Miss Faye confirmed. “Things started to go sideways once they actually got to the prom. As long as they were still in the dinner and limo part of the night, Tara kept on being nice to Jeff, and all her friends followed her lead. But when they got to the school, everything changed. I was chaperoning that year, like I did a lot of years, to keep the punch unspoken, not that people even really did that except in movies. But I liked to put on pretty dresses and see all the girls all dressed up, so I usually volunteered.”
“Well, the gym was decorated like an undersea fantasy, in a Little Mermaid theme. There were blue lights everywhere, and ripple effects casting waves on the walls, and blue and green streamers stretched all over the gym making a canopy and hiding the rafters and basketball goals. There was a huge castle that everybody walked through to get into the dance, and tables all around. Tara and her girls walked in and went straight over to a table, which had just enough chairs so that Jeff was left standing behind her, without a place to sit.”
“Then they all went to the bathroom, and Jeff was left with the football players who were dating all of Tara’s friends. They all did just a fine job of making it clear Jeff wasn’t welcome with them, either. Tara and her friends came back, and they all started dancing, except for Jeff, who got pushed to the side as football player after football player stepped in and danced with his date while he stood behind her chair, watching. Every time he moved toward her, she stepped away to another boy, leaving him watching just like he’d done for years.”
“The last straw for Jeff was when Gene showed up and Tara danced with him for about a half hour straight, kissing him on the dance floor and all but making out in front of the whole school. Jeff finally stepped up and tried to cut in, but Gene just laughed at him. Jeff tapped him on the shoulder again, and this time Gene shoved him. Jeff stumbled back and fell, and everything on the dance floor just stopped. Every should turned and looked at Jeff, sitting on his butt in the middle of the gym, looking up at his date hanging on the arm of her ex-boyfriend, looking down at him without even an ounce of remorse in her eyes.”
“She looked at Jeff sitting there for a minute, then pulled Gene back to her, kissed him right on the mouth, and went back to dancing. Jeff eventually got up and left the gym. I heard later from a friend of his that he walked all the way home, five miles in rented patent leather shoes along the side of the road, with promgoers and classmates driving by the whole time.”
Faye gave Jenny a gentle look. “I know she’s your mama, sweetie, but when she was seventeen, she was a bona fide bitch. What she did to that boy was enough to break a grown man, much less a boy. Jeff never came back to school. His grades were good enough that he could lay out the rest of the school year and still pass, so he did. He didn’t show up for graduation, either. Just got his diploma in the mail. I didn’t see him for several years after that, until he came home about ten years ago and took a job at the sheriff’s department when his mama got sick.”
“God rest her,” Miss Frances said.
“What happened to Mrs. JEFF LAST NAME?” I asked.
“She got breast cancer about ten years ago, and Jeff came back to be with her. It went into remission for a long time, but it came back on her last year, and by the time they caught it, it had spread to her lymph nodes. She died about a month ago,” Miss Frances replied.
“Just a couple weeks before Jenny was killed,” I said.
“And just a few days before Shelly reminded him of the worst night of his life,” Jenny said.
I spun to look at her. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Shelly asked him to go to prom with her,” she said. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, she was always picking at people. But it was at one of the home football games, and NAME was messing with Jeff after the game, and she asked him to go to prom with her.” Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh my god.”
“What is it, honey?” I asked.
“She said we’d both go with him. Shelly told Jeff that we both wanted to date him. She set him off. Shelly got us both killed.”
I stared at the girl, who leaned against a headstone, shaking her head. Just then, a patrol car with lights flashing sped by the cemetery and pulled up in front of my house. I watched Willis jump out of the car and run up my steps. As he banged on the door, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed his number. I watched him pull his phone out of his pocket and look at the screen, then put the phone to his ear.
“I’m not home, Willis. I’m at the cemetery. I’m walking your way. What’s going on?” I put my feet in motion so my actions would match my words.
“Is Jenny with you?” He asked.
“Yes, and we’ve got some information about Jeff that you need to hear.”
“Bring her with you. We’ve got to go.”
“Go where?” I asked.
“The Miller house. I just got a call from Jenny’s father. Someone kidnapped Mrs. Miller. Jenny’s mother is missing.”