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 explained Tara Miller’s history with Jeff as we sped over to the Miller home. When I added the details of Shelly teasing Jeff, Willis shook his head. “Stupid kids,” he muttered. “Messed with the wrong man, and now they ended up dead because of it.”
Jenny was frantic in the back seat, flitting in and out of the car and cursing her friend Shelly with every breath. “I knew she was being a bitch, but I didn’t do anything to stop her. Dammit, Shelly, why did you have to mess with his dumb ass?”
I didn’t bother trying to point out the beam in her eye while she fussed about Shelly, because this wasn’t the time to tell the poor dead child that she was as much to blame for her situation as Shelly. And honestly, neither one of them was much to blame. Sure, they didn’t need to torment poor Jeff, but that still didn’t give him cause to go murdering people, neither.
We pulled up on front of Jenny’s house less than ten minutes after Willis first banged on my door. It ain’t like it’s that big a town, after all. Reverend Turner was sitting on the front porch, a Bible in one hand and a flashlight in the other. There was a pump shotgun leaning against the wall behind him, and I wouldn’t put it much past the good Reverend to turn that scattergun on anybody he thought to be intruding on the Miller’s hour of grief.
“Reverend,” Willis said as we approached the bottom step.
“Sheriff,” Reverend Turner said, standing up and setting his bible down in the seat of the rocker he’d vacated. “Lila Grace,” he nodded to me. It was the most polite greeting he’d given me in better than ten years. I reckon our little heart-to-heart the other night had some effect.
“Reverend Turner,” I said. “I’m sure Mr. Miller appreciates you being here for him.”
The preacher looked a little ashamed, but gave me what passed for an appreciative nod. “David isn’t a regular member of our congregation, but Karen is one of the leaders of the church. I felt that if there was anything I could do, I should be here.”
“Daddy always says he has an important meeting every Sunday morning, at the intersection of Pillow Street and Blanket Avenue,” Jenny said. “But it means a lot that Reverend Turner would come out in the middle of the night like this.”
I reached out and patted the man’s shoulder. To his credit, he barely flinched at my unclean touch. Maybe he really was thawing towards me a little bit. Or maybe he was just too sleepy to fight. “I’m sure he appreciates it, even if he don’t say it, Reverend.” I said, moving past him into the house.
The Union County Sheriff’s Department ain’t exactly what you would call bustling, and there ain’t a whole lot of manpower allocated to Lockhart most nights. So it wasn’t a big surprise that there were only two people in the house when we stepped in. I recognized Larry Carter, the night shift man in the speed trap down on Highway 49, and a reedy little fellow ducked into the kitchen as soon as the sheriff walked in, but I was pretty sure I recognized the flaming red hair that couldn’t be anybody but Chuck Blackwell. Chuck was a good man, but lazy as the day is long. I knew if he was in that kitchen, it was because it was far from any possible crime scene, and close to any casseroles the grieving family might have left out on the counter.
“Larry, what do we know?” Willis asked.
“Not much, Sheriff,” the dark-haired man answered. “The call came in about half an hour ago, and I called for backup as soon as I got here and heard saw David had been hit upside the head. Told Ava to call up everybody she could find, but Chuck was the only one who picked up the radio.”
“What about Jeff?” I asked. Willis shot me a sharp look, but it was the only real question we were interested in, especially after my talk with the grapevine ghosts earlier.
“Ava said he had him a long weekend, talked about getting out of town. She didn’t even bother trying to reach him. Said when he went off the grid, he went whole hog about it. No radio, no cell phone—nothing. I reckon we won’t see him until Tuesday morning.”
I thought there was a good chance I’d see Jeff before that, but I didn’t want to say anything to Larry about it. “What does Mr. Miller say happened?” I asked.
“Not much, Ms. Carter. I talked to him, but he don’t know a whole lot.” He nodded at the despondent man on the sofa by the big picture window in the den.
I walked over to where David Miller sat on the couch, his elbows on his knees. He was hunched over, a man curling in on himself to keep the world out. The past week had been enough to break most people, and now his wife going missing on top of his daughter’s death had him wearing the haunted expression of a man who didn’t know if he had anything left to live for.
I didn’t wait for Willis to give me the okay, I just sat down on the couch next to Mr. Miller. I put one arm around his shoulders and pulled him tight to me. He was a grown man, not used to having somebody able to give him comfort, but I’m an old woman, and in a small town in the South that means I’m halfway to being everybody’s aunt. I’m not bound by the laws of normal manners. Besides, everybody already thinks I’m crazy, so I get to do anything I want.
“I’m so sorry you’ve got to go through this, Mr. Miller. We’re here, and we’re going to figure out what happened, and bring your Karen back to you. I promise,” I said. I saw Willis and Larry both stiffen and look at one another when I said that. I know, you ain’t supposed to promise somebody something you don’t know you can deliver, but I’m not a cop. I’m an old woman who hates to see people hurting, so I did what I could to help the man with his pain.
He shook in my arms for a minute, then I heard him take a long breath. I felt his shoulders tighten, so I relaxed my hold on him, and he sat up.
“Thank you, Lila Grace,” he said. “I appreciate it. I know you can’t really promise that, but it means a lot anyway.”
“Well, I promise to try my damnedest, how about that?” I said.
“I’ll take it,” he replied. “Now what do I need to do to find Karen?”
Willis stepped forward. “I know you’ve already gone over this with Officer Carter, but why don’t you fill me in a little bit on what happened tonight, just so I can hear it fresh?” He sat down on the coffee table, positioning himself directly in front of Mr. Miller. I knew full well this didn’t have a damn thing to do with him hearing anything fresh, and everything to do with making sure the man’s story stayed straight. I was sure that Jeff took Jenny’s mom, and I’m pretty sure that Willis was, too.
But I knew full well that the first suspect in any case was the husband, so it made sense to look at Mr. Miller while we got all our information together to go after Jeff. Besides, there might be something new that came out of his story, something he left out when he talked to Carter.
I stood just out of Mr. Miller’s line of sight, but still in the room. I didn’t have any real business being there, but since the sheriff led me in, nobody else was going to have the guts to throw me out. Jenny’s dad had an ice pack wrapped in a dishtowel pressed up against the back of his head, and a bruise blossoming on his cheekbone just under his right eye. Whatever happened, it wasn’t pretty.
“I heard a noise,” he started. “I was upstairs asleep, and something woke me. I don’t know what it sounded like, just that it woke me up. I laid there in the bed for a minute, listening to see if I could hear what it was, thinking maybe it was Jenny going down for a glass of water. Then I remembered…well, then I remembered, and I got up, moving as quiet as I could manage without turning a light on.”
“It sounded like somebody was trying to move through the house being real quiet, but they didn’t know where all the furniture was. Hell, with all the people that have been in and out of here the last week, I barely know where the chairs are supposed to go. So I heard another sound, like somebody walking into a chair and it scraping across the floor, and heard somebody cuss real quiet, like they couldn’t help it.”
“What did the voice sound like?” Willis asked, leaning forward. He was all cop now, attention focused like a laser.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Miller said, rubbing his bruised face. “It sounded like a man, but that’s all I can really remember.”
“Okay, that’s fine, David, just tell me everything you can remember,” Willis said, reaching out and patting the distraught man on the knee.
“I looked around the bedroom, but there was nothing there I could use as a weapon, really. We don’t keep guns…I mean, there’s a shotgun, but it’s over the fireplace, and I don’t know if it’ll even shoot. It was my granddaddy’s. I’ve never even shot the thing. So I kinda snuck downstairs as quiet as I could, and when I got to the landing, there was a man coming up at me.”
“He must have been as surprised as I was, but he reacted faster. The dude charged up a couple of steps and slammed me into the wall. My head cracked into the drywall behind me, and I saw stars. Then I felt something heavy hit me in the face, and I fell down. I got hit on the back of the head, and I passed out. He took me out in just a few seconds. I was useless.” He put his face in his hands and I saw his shoulders shake with sobs.
“Mr. Miller, I’m sure there’s nothing more you could’ve done,” Willis said. “But I need you to think for me, David. Do you remember any details about the man’s clothes? His shoes, his pants, his face?”
“He wore a mask. One of those ski masks, with one big hole cut out for the eyes. His shirt was dark, I didn’t notice really anything about it.”
“Okay,” Willis prodded. “What about his pants? When you fell to the ground, did you notice anything about his shoes?”
“His shoes…he wore boots, like work boots, but black. Blue jeans, I think, maybe blue work pants…I don’t know. Black socks, I guess. They didn’t stand out. I’m sorry, I can’t…my head really hurts.” A tear rolled down his face as he clutched his skull.
I looked around and say Peggy Barnette standing in the doorway. Peggy was one of the local EMTs, a stout woman who was every bit as capable of driving the ambulance and manhandling an unconscious adult as she was putting a bandage on a child’s skinned knee. I raised an eyebrow at Peggy, and she came over.
“Mr. Miller, I need to check your eyes.” Peggy knelt in front of the distraught man and pulled a small flashlight from her shirt pocket. She flicked it across his face, and he jerked back. She turned to us. “I think he may have a concussion. His memory might be a little foggy, and he needs to go to the hospital and get checked out.”
“And I need to find out everything I can about his missing wife,” Willis snapped. Peggy scowled at him, but didn’t reply.
I tugged on the sheriff’s elbow and pulled him up with me. “We might as well go upstairs and see if there’s anything up there,” I said. “He won’t be able to tell us anything useful, he’s too upset.”
Willis sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I know. It’s frustrating, is all.” He waved Larry over. “Deputy Carter, accompany Mr. Miller to the hospital. Sit by his bed in case he remembers anything. If he thinks of anything, no matter how small, you call me. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Larry said. He walked over to where Peggy was examining Jenny’s dad and bent down to speak to her.
Willis headed up the stairs, and I followed close behind. There were pictures all along the wall going up the stairs, smiling family photos from Christmas, Disneyland, a couple from when Mrs. Miller was pregnant with Jenny. We got to the top of the stairs, and I stopped, looking at Jenny. She hovered just outside the door to her parents’ bedroom, as if she was afraid to set foot in the room.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I spoke softly, so the folks downstairs wouldn’t hear me. Didn’t need any crap about the sheriff dating the freak.
“I…I’m scared, Miss Lila Grace. I haven’t been scared this whole time, even though I’ve been dead. I guess it’s like there’s nothing left to be afraid of now. But this…she’s my mom. I don’t know what’s happening to her, I just know that he has her, and he hates her, and…” She turned away from me, her face in her hands. I reached out to her, but my hand passed right through her shadowy form.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I said. “I wish there was something I could do.”
She spun back to me, a fury on her face, and I could almost feel the anger rolling off of her. The pictures on the wall shook, and I heard a muffled thud from inside the bedroom as one fell off the top of a dresser. She looked at me, her eyes blazing, and said, “There is. Find her. Find my mama, and make that son of a bitch pay.”