Murder and The Little Old Lady
By Lorraine J. Anderson
Jesse Wolford woke up with a start. Did he hear something? He lay in bed, listening. Nothing. He stared out into the darkened room, a slight light coming in from the moon even through the thick curtains. He didn’t know what he thought he was going to see; he might as well close his eyes if he was going to be awake in the middle of the night. He might possibly go back to sleep. He turned to one side, and then the other. His eyes popped open and he sighed. It was no use, he might as well get up, even though it was — oh, geez, 4:00 in the morning. At this point, he might as well make a cup of coffee.
Turning on the light, he automatically looked over at Martha’s side of the bed. It was a habit he had started when they were first married — early mornings and late evenings at the office, especially during tax time. He never wanted to wake her up. But, invariably, she was already awake, smiling at him. It was her choice to wake up with him; she had told him that during nursing training, she could sleep during a buffalo stampede.
He looked away from that side of the bed and stretched. The light flickered for some reason — maybe the wind he heard blowing outside was affecting the lines. He sighed and shuffled into the kitchen.
Well. Maybe waking up in the middle of the night wasn’t quite so much of a coincidence. His book he had been reading at supper had fallen on the floor. That might have been the bang he heard.
He blinked. He felt like he was being watched. Usually when he woke up this early, he felt like he was being watched, especially in the last few months. It was nuts, of course. There were drawn curtains on all of his windows. He kept a piece of tape on the camera of his laptop, which, as he glanced at it, was off and the top was down. Two — or was it three? — weeks ago, he even had a techno-savvy client scan his residence and his office for cameras. There was nothing, of course, and, at the time, he chalked it up to the raw grief he still felt.
But it had been eight months since his Martha Ellen had passed away. And she had passed on her own terms, passing in the living room in a hospital bed that hospice had brought in. Even in the last, drugged fogged moments, she had smiled at him and told him that she would always be with him.
He shook his head. He didn’t need to be thinking about this in the middle of the night. He opened his book to his bookmark and placed it on the table. He turned away to his coffee maker, intending to start his day with a strong cup of coffee, thinking about the estate tax return that he intended to work on today.
He heard a thump and turned around. His book was on the floor. Well, maybe he had placed it on the edge of the table. He was still half awake, that was possible. He picked it up and placed it on the center of the table, turning back towards the coffee maker.
It was back on the floor. As he watched, the pages flipped open, stopping on the title page. “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead,” by Agatha Christie, with one of his favorite detectives, Hercule Poirot.
He shook his head. Must be the book had a natural tendency to open in this place. But how had it gotten on the floor from the middle of the table?
He placed it back on the table, turning so that he could watch it in his peripheral vision. He wasn’t sure why. Books just didn’t get up and plop themselves on the floor by themselves. And, as he suspected, the book remained fixed upon the table. He turned to the cupboard to grab himself a cup….
Open to the title page again.
“Stay there, then,” he told the book, irritably, and finished making his coffee. He turned toward the table, but suddenly he glanced at the curtains. They looked like they were waving slightly — probably the furnace kicking on — but through the window, he could see police lights.
There were lights — lots of them — in a house second over from his at the beginning of the cul-de-sac. As he remembered, an elderly widow lived there — Mrs. what? Mrs. McIver. Well, not surprising that something might have happened to her in the middle of the night. He glanced at the book. Coincidence. Still….
He grabbed his robe and his coat, being very careful to put his key in his pocket after locking the door. There was a small crowd of neighbors gathering. “What’s happened?” he said to the middle aged lady standing there. He wished he could remember her name.
“I heard screaming. Woke me up out of a sound sleep, it did. I went to Jane’s door and pounded on it, then I looked through the front window. She was dead.”
“How did you know she was dead?”
“Had a bullet hole right through her forehead, she did,” the lady said. Suddenly, she turned white and started to collapse toward Jesse.
“Paramedic!” He yelled, as he lunged forward to catch her. The problem was that she was almost six inches taller than he was, and they fell with agonizing slowness toward the ground. He twisted so that he landed on his bottom, with her head and torso landing on top of him.
He gasped, trying to get his breath back. One of the medical personnel rushed toward them.
“She… fainted…” Jesse finally got out. The paramedic, a tall young man, lifted the lady off Jesse… he wished he remembered the neighbor’s name.
Martha would’ve known.
“Are you all right?” A second paramedic said — a shorter female, but still taller than he was.
Jesse sat up and shrugged. “I’ll be sore in the morning, but nothing’s broken.”
“Let me check you out to be sure.”
Jesse shrugged, and was just about ready to protest, but hesitated. He was terminally curious, and maybe the paramedic would talk. Although HIPAA laws would probably prevent them from saying much, maybe he could get around that.
He allowed himself to be picked up off the ground; to tell the truth, he was still a little shaken up by the fall. The neighbor had woken up and was talking with the other paramedic. The female led him to the ambulance, looked up, then sat him on the lower step.
Sometimes it sucked being short. On the other hand, at five foot tall, he could do things taller people couldn’t. He couldn’t think of what that was at the second, but there had to be something.
This was why he went into accounting. He loved puzzles.
The paramedic was looking at him, concerned. “Sorry,” he said. “Thinking.”
She smiled. “Think later.” She pulled out a penlight, shooting it into his eyes. She seemed satisfied with what she saw, then glanced at his arms. “You have a little abrasion there,” she said, looking at his wrist. “Let me treat that.” She grabbed some antibiotic cream.
“So,” Jesse said, “my neighbor lady said that Mrs. McIver was shot in the forehead.”
“I can’t say,” she said, but she nodded slightly.
“Hmm,” he said, “shot in the forehead. Not suicide, or she would have shot herself in the temple or through the mouth.” She didn’t say anything. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a fan of Agatha Christie.”
“Christie?” She said.
“Never heard of her? ‘And Then There Were None?’ ‘4:50 From Paddington’? ‘Murder on the Orient Express’?”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought that was Kenneth Branagh?”
“Well,” he said. “That, too. Quite a few people have played the great Hercule Poirot.” But this wasn’t satisfying his curiosity about the murder.
In fact, why was he curious about a real murder? Why didn’t he just go home?
Because he loved solving puzzles — in work, at the accounting office, in his reading — he just couldn’t go away. And then there was the mystery of the moving book…
Naw. He turned to go….
… and something slapped him over his head. He turned, angrily, towards the paramedic, and she turned back to him.
She had moved five feet away. There was no way that she could have hit him on the head.
He looked around. There was nobody else close to him, and — he looked down — no, there was nothing on the ground around him.
He felt a poke in his side and jumped. The paramedic was back in front of him and looked at him. “Are you sure you’re all right, sir?”
He blinked. “Must be a muscle twinge,” he said. He felt his side. He hadn’t felt a poke in his side since… since Martha Ellen passed away.
He shook his head. It was too early in the morning. The sun wasn’t even up. What was he — and what were his neighbors doing out here, anyway? He had a long day tomorrow— today. He needed his sleep.
He felt the poke in his side again. He looked to his side — nothing there. The police were setting up floodlights around the house, and he almost glanced into one of the bulbs. He saw something glint, and narrowed his eyes. Just a small glint, and it was gone. He got up, peering into the bushes, being careful not to look too close.
Someone came up beside him. “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you…”
He continued to stare into the bush. “Officer, could you train a light right there? I thought I saw something.”
“Whatever it is, we’ll look….” The officer’s flashlight bobbled up and down, and he stared down at it.
“There.” He saw it again and moved forward, trying not to take his eyes off it.
“I’m afraid, sir…” The flashlight bobbed up and down again. “Oh.”
“You see it?”
“Yes. Please stand back.”
Now that he had pointed it out, Jesse was happy not to have to go into the bush — it looked a little prickly, and he was still in his pajamas and robe. The officer went in, pulled something out of his pocket, and came out, holding a gun. “This is very odd,” he said.
“Because Mrs. McIver was already holding a gun?”
The officer blinked. “Who told…”
“Nobody.” The officer’s eyes hardened, and Jesse realized what he just said. “I had heard that Mrs. McIver died of a gunshot wound to the head, and a couple of people were speculating suicide. If Mrs. McIver did commit suicide, why would the gun be out here? Even if she was set up for us to believe that she committed suicide, there would be no point to having a gun outside the window.” He looked up at the window. “Especially since there’s a hole in the screen.”
The officer looked up. “You know, sir, we’ve only been on scene for about ten minutes, and you’ve just discovered two clues that our officers haven’t.” He sighed and looked him up and down. “Look. I don’t know you. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with us downtown.”
Jesse felt a little shock. “Really? Why?”
“Because until we can establish you were not in the house, we have to treat you as a person of interest.” The man looked at him intently. “Did you know Mrs. McIver?”
“Met her once at a block party. But I’m not usually home, especially in the last year or so.”
“Were you ever in the house?”
“Never. And we’ve… I’ve lived here for the last fifteen years.”
The officer’s stare intensified, if that were possible. “We…?”
Jesse gazed him in his eye. “My wife passed away last year. Cancer.”
The officer looked away. “I’m sorry.”
“And I understand. How long will it take? I’ll need to call my office.” He looked down. “And can I get dressed first?” He grinned. “You think I shot her in my pajamas?”
“I’ll send an officer with you. We should probably process the pajamas, too.”
“That’s fine.” He smiled. “I have nothing to hide.”
“I’m Detective Justin Bowers. I won’t be taking you downtown, but in case you need help…”
“I thought suspects were guilty until proven innocent,” Jesse smiled wryly.
“They are,” Justin said, “but sometimes I get a feeling about certain people.”
“I’m Jesse Wolford.” He stuck his hand out. “I’m a CPA.”
“Well,” Justin said. “That would explain your attention to detail.”
“Ah,” Jesse said. “You must know a CPA.”
“We arrested one last year.”
Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“It was for fraud.” Justin smiled. “Don’t look so worried.”
“You know,” Jesse said, “that really doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Sorry.” He motioned to another police officer. “Charley? I need you to accompany Mr. Wolford to his house so that he can dress, and then we’ll need to take him downtown for questioning. He’s also allowed to make one phone call to his office.”
“Right,” Charley said.
“Treat him with respect, please,” Justin said. Jesse attempted to look elderly and innocent. Well, he wasn’t young, as Martha Ellen used to keep telling him. He imagined that he did look like a meek looking, overweight, fifty-something old man with thinning hair. Which he was.
Too bad he didn’t have secret Ninja skills.
“Come on,” he said, “I imagine you have to watch my every move.”
“Yes, sir,” Charley said. “Sorry, sir.”
“Don’t fall asleep.”
They walked back to the house, and he swiftly dressed, called the office and left a message on his machine, and grabbed his house keys. He looked regretfully at his book, then opted to leave it. Maybe they’d give him a magazine.
He turned towards his desk, then stared. A pad of paper was on the desk, and, as he watched, the pages flipped slightly. He inclined his head and turned to the officer. “Can I bring a pad of paper?”
Charley frowned. “Let me look at it, but I don’t see why not.” Jesse handed him a pad, and he flipped through it and bent it – Jesse supposed, to look for a knife or something. “Why do you want it?”
Jesse hesitated, then decided not to say the real reason. “I want to write down what I observed. I also want to keep from being bored.”
It also seemed like he was being haunted. The problem was— while he thought he believed in an afterlife, he didn’t believe in ghosts. It wasn’t logical to believe in both. He believed in God, and Heaven and Angels — in spite of logic — but he didn’t believe that spirits hung around on earth. Unless this was purgatory.
When Martha Ellen passed away, he believed that this world was Hell. He still wasn’t sure.
The officer handed it back to him. “I’m ready,” Jesse said, and the officer pointed the car out. “Can I ride in back?”
“Wasn’t planning on letting you ride in front,” Charley said, apologetically. “It’s not protocol.”
“Okay.” Jesse got into the back seat and fastened his seatbelt. In the distance, he could see the police around Mrs. McIver’s house, and he felt sad — not that he knew Mrs. McIver, but that she had died so violently. She seemed nice enough when he had passed her on the street. Still, one could never tell what was in her background. She seemed like a nice little old widow, but who knows? She could have been a pole dancer in her youth. Or a call girl.
Or maybe she was just a nice little old widow who went to church every Sunday and sang in the church choir.
It was definitely too early in the morning for him. He was normally not this imaginative, although he had to have a little imagination in order to work with some clients, or else he would drive himself batty trying to figure out the logic in some of the bookkeeping he saw.
He watched the homes give way to storefronts, then to chain stores. His stomach growled. He wondered if they would have anything to eat at the station that he could have. Even a candy bar would help, although — looking down at his pot belly — he certainly didn’t need any more candy.
What was Mrs. Porter, his secretary, going to think when she got that message? Mrs. Porter was older than he was, and was thinking about retirement. He would miss Mrs. Porter when she left, but he had to admit she was making more and more mistakes. Still…
The car turned right into the station. Charley let him out, and led him to an interrogation room, which — he looked around — seemed ominous. Still, Officer Bowers said he wasn’t a suspect, right?
Right. He didn’t believe in Bowers’ declaration that he wasn’t a suspect. He sighed, sat in the hard chair at the table, and opened his notebook….
…. and then stared. There was a drawing already in the notebook. It was crude, but it seemed to show a man in a trench coat outside of a window pointing a gun at a lady in a chair.
He blinked. How did that get there? He looked at the notebook more carefully. Oh. Yes. It was one of Martha Ellen’s notebooks, and, as he flipped back, he noted drawings of flowers, of people, even a poorly rendered picture of him. She loved to draw, even though she wasn’t very good at it. Still, scenes of a murder weren’t quite her style.
He shrugged. Maybe she had just read a murder mystery and wanted to get the scene clearer in her mind. Anything having to do with Mrs. McIver was just coincidence, wasn’t it?
Of course it was. He looked at the drawing. Of course, the drawing couldn’t have been based on Agatha Christie’s work — her murders were more genteel. Poison, strangling — ”Murder on the Orient Express” must have been the exception. Must have been the scene from something else. Or even the old CSI TV show, which he, personally, thought was rather gruesome.
For a sweet person, Martha Ellen could be rather bloodthirsty in her fiction.
He sighed, and thought back to what little he saw of the crime scene… or didn’t see at the crime scene. Actually, he didn’t see any of the crime scene at all, except for the revolver outside the window.
For that matter, why was the revolver outside of the window? What self-respecting murderer would drop the murder weapon at the crime scene? Unless the weapon was wiped clean, what was the point? All of a sudden, he wondered if the police could tell whether it was fired recently. He supposed they could, and he supposed they could match the bullet that killed Mrs. McIver to the murder weapon.
So was the murder weapon in the house, after all? Was the hole an old hole, and the pistol outside a red herring? Or was the pistol inside the wrong one?
For that matter, why kill a little old lady?
He turned to the next page. There was another drawing of a body. This one seemed to be in a small space. A coffin, he supposed. If so, why was there a wire on the outside of the coffin? Or was that the handles?
He finally found a blank page and started writing. He was still writing two hours later — with one short bathroom break – when Detective Bowers walked in.
“Mr. Wolford,” Bowers nodded.
“Do I dare ask what you found?”
“Interviewed a bunch of your neighbors. Only one person saw something, and only because he normally gets up at 3:30 to go to work. Saw somebody run from Mrs. McIver’s house, and he was beyond positive that person was tall and skinny.”
“Which leaves me out,” Jesse grinned.
“Exactly. That’s my assumption. But I somehow have the idea that you’ll be a valuable resource.” He glanced at the notebook. “So what have you come up with?”
“Do you normally consult your local CPA?”
“Only on special occasions,” Justin grinned. “Usually at tax time.”
“I have news for you,” Jesse said. “The entire year is tax time.” He pushed over the notebook. “Here are my notes. I probably haven’t come up with anything you haven’t — after all, I haven’t seen the crime scene.”
Justin read it over. “We did have most of it,” he said, “but you came up with more details about Mrs. McIver.”
Jesse sighed. “Most of those observations were Martha Ellen’s — my late wife’s. And then, I don’t think she knew her that well.”
“Still,” Justin said. “You gave us more than even the deceased did. Usually people have someone to call for next of kin somewhere in the house or on their person — especially the elderly, like she is. This lady? Nothing. At least you gave us a possible next of kin.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Some sort of third cousin.”
Justin turned the page back. “What’s this?”
“Nothing, really,” Jesse said. “My wife was an amateur artist and she loved mystery books. I suppose she was trying to picture a murder scene.”
“So you’ve never seen this picture before?”
“That’s the set up of Mrs. McIver’s living room.” Justin seemed to realize that he had skipped a page.
Jesse frowned. “That’s weird.”
“And that was the position of Mrs. McIver’s body.”
“That must be coincidence,” Jesse said. “Right?”
“Either that,” Justin said, “or…” He looked at Jesse and shook his head. “Never mind, Mr. Wolford, you are free to go. But I’ll need you to be able to be reached.”
“And don’t leave town?” Jesse half-joked.
Justin didn’t smile. “Right.”
“Right.” He got up and extended his hand. “It was nice to meet you.” Justin managed a smile and shook his hand.
Jesse gave his contact info to the clerk on the way out, then exited the station. He had almost forgotten that he hadn’t driven his car. Oh, well, it wasn’t raining, and the office was only a couple of blocks over. He’d have Mrs. Porter give him a ride home.
He got to the office in a few minutes later and opened the door. A young lady was sitting at Mrs. Porter’s desk. She was chewing gum and had bright purple hair. The phone rang, and she answered it. “Wolford Accounting. May I help you?… Mr. Wolford isn’t in the office right now, may I take a message? Mrs. Porter is out today, also… All right. Thank you.”
Well, she didn’t look professional, but she was efficient. She turned to Jesse. “May I help you?”
“I’m Jesse Wolford. Where’s Mrs. Porter?”
“Oh!” The young lady got up. “I’m sorry to meet you like this! I’m Josie Porter’s niece.” She stuck out her hand, then narrowed her eyes and looked to one side. She started to say something, then stopped. “Aunt Josie gave me the keys and told me not to touch anything.”
“What’s wrong with Josie?” Jesse said.
“She’s in the hospital. A slight stroke. Mom’s not letting her do anything.”
“And she sent you over here?”
“I was here to tell you and just to open up the office before you came. Then, when you didn’t come….”
“It’s been a bad morning already,” Jesse said, but he didn’t elaborate. “So — she told you to answer the phone.”
“No,” she grinned. “That was my idea. I didn’t like the idea of the phone ringing off the hook.” She looked off to the side again, and he looked in back of him, wondering if someone was coming in behind him.
There was no-one. He looked back at the girl and chewed his lip. He thought he had an appointment today, and of all days for Josie to get sick.… it was so much easier with someone to someone to answer the phone. “Miss — is there any possible way that you can stay for the day and answer the phone?”
“Aunt Josie thought that might be a possibility — I have today off, so I have no problem helping out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I would rather…” she shuddered “… not wait around the hospital, much as I love my Mom and Aunt Josie. Too many…” she closed her eyes.
“Well,” he said, looking at her oddly. “Well, let’s get you a few W-4s and get you started.”
“Oh,” she said. “You’re going to be putting me on the payroll?”
“Certainly. I’d rather not give you a 1099.”
“Cool. By the way, my name is Mara Jameson.”
“Oh, right,” Jesse shook his head. “I’m sorry, I am very tired and I’ve lost my manners.” He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“And you.” Mara smiled. Her eyes shifted to the right and she nodded.
He blinked. “Is there somebody beside me?”
“No,” she said, “of course not. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll get you the paperwork. Where do you normally work?”
“Oh,” she said. “My latest job is in a fast food place.” She blushed. “I haven’t found anyplace I want to stay for long.”
“Do you have a degree?”
She grinned ruefully. “English. And early Elementary Education. I had the idea I was going to be a teacher until I actually got to do it.” She looked like she was going to add something, then stopped. “Hard to find a decent job with an English Major.”
She looked around. “Well, what would you like me to do?”
“First?” He thought a moment. “First, I need to impress on you that any names or anything you learn here stays here. If you say anything about my clients to anyone to but myself or Josie, I could lose my accreditation.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I’ve heard of HIPAA in the hospitals and that lawyers have confidentially agreements, but I never knew that accountants had the same.” She looked introspective. “But it makes sense.”
“Right now, I’d just like you to answer the phone….” He felt a poke in his side, and he jumped. He looked at Mara, who was at least three feet in front of him. She managed to look bland, chewing her gum. He winced again at her purple hair, but decided that beggars couldn’t be choosers. “Well, I guess I could teach you how to copy tax forms.”
She grinned. “You need to teach me how?”
“There’s a technique.” He looked on the shelf behind Mara. “Here’s one you can look at.” He looked at Josie’s inbox. “And here’s one you can photocopy.” He felt something pat his shoulder. It was just like Martha Ellen used to do when she was pleased with him. He shook himself. He must be more tired than he thought.
She caught on quicker than he thought she would. He watched her answer the phone, and she was good with the clients. At the end of the morning, he came out of his office. “Ready for lunch?”
Mara chewed her lip. “I didn’t bring any. Actually, I didn’t expect to be here that long.”
He felt guilty. “Am I keeping you from going back to the hospital?”
“Oh, no, no. I called Mom a long time ago. I think Aunt Josie was a bit relieved.”
“Then I’m treating.”
He led her down the street to a storefront restaurant. She ordered a burger and fries, and he wished that he had her metabolism as he ordered the same thing. As soon as they got their drinks, he sat back. “Thank you so much for helping out.”
“My pleasure,” Mara said. “It keeps me from being at the hospital.” She shuddered. “So many sad… people.”
The little hesitation she put in didn’t escape him, but he let it pass.
“What happened to you this morning?”
He closed his eyes, which was a mistake. He could easily fall asleep right there. “There was a murder in my neighborhood.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“I had already heard…. surmised that something like that had happened.” She looked at him sharply.
This time, he wasn’t going to let it go. “How had you heard about this murder? Did the police call you?”
“I saw something on the news. And you said something.…”
“I did not. And I didn’t see any news cars there.”
She looked a little like a deer caught in headlights. “Someone told me.”
“You won’t believe me.” She sighed. “And then another job will go down the drain.”
He blinked. “This is how you lost your other jobs?”
“Except for the fast food. Where I’m at, most people are a little odd. So I fit in.”
“Apart from the hair, you’ve done a great job this morning.” He had to admit; she was better than Josie.… who had been slowing down a lot in recent years.
She blushed. “Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you.”
What HAD Josie been telling her? He passed it over. “So.…?”
“I.…”. She grinned suddenly. “I see dead people.” She sat back. “I’ve always wanted to use that line.”
“You. You see dead people. Like ghosts?”
“Spirits. Energy of people who haven’t moved on yet.” She frowned. “Not like those people on TV. I don’t know whether they’re lying or whether they’re sincere and they’re empathic and picking up on what their clients believe, but I’ve never seen a spirit beside those TV people.”
He blinked. “Maybe spirits can’t be picked up on TV.”
“Thought about that. But I’ve seen my great-grandfather in an old home movie.”
“So.… you don’t think I’m crazy?”
“Yes, actually I do. But strange things have been happening all day. Books have ended up on the floor. I’ve felt things poke me. I thought it was my imagination, actually, but — something pushed me forward and I found a gun. The book was ‘Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.’ There was a drawing in my wife’s notebook that looked exactly like the murder scene, according to the police.”
She looked like she was about to say something.
“There is a man standing beside you. Every so often, a small lady pops in beside him. She looks incredibly mad.”
“A man?” He blinked. “But the murder victim was a little old lady.”
She stared intently into the air beside him. “I think he’s saying Mrs. McIver.”
His eyebrows popped up. “That’s right.”
She nodded. “Of course.” She stared at the space beside him. “No, he’s saying Mrs. McIver murdered me.”
“Mrs. McIver was the one who was murdered.”
She shook her head. “I see a man. Was Mrs. McIver pretty old?”
Jesse stared at her. “I would say she was around eighty or ninety. I don’t know how old she was, but she seemed elderly.”
“Then I would say that the angry woman was her.”
Jesse stared at her as their lunch was set in front of them. Mara smiled and took a bite of her hamburger. “Thanks, Mr. Wolford.”
“Call me Jesse,” he said, automatically.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
He looked at the sandwich in front of him. He really wasn’t hungry, but he could almost hear Martha Ellen telling him to keep his energy up. He took a bite of the hamburger and chewed it automatically.
Actually, it wasn’t half bad. His blood sugar must have been down.
“Okay,” he said, after eating half of the sandwich, “do you know why these ghosts are following me around?”
Mara looked out the window in the front of the shop. She seemed to nod slightly, and Jesse narrowed his eyes. “Not really,” she finally said. “Spirits are… “ she screwed up her mouth as if trying to decide something. “… mercurial,” she finally said. “Most flit in and out. It’s like they run out of power or something. And those who remain here have some sort of agenda, even if they don’t realize what they’re doing. Some repeat the same actions over and over; some hang around their loved ones and try to help. The more psychopathic ones mess with people. The ones I see usually have an agenda they want me to do, but they don’t understand that I can’t do much.”
“Why don’t they understand?” She looked puzzled.
“No,” Jesse said, putting his sandwich down. “Why can’t you do anything?”
“People don’t take me seriously.” Jesse must have made a face. Mara grinned ruefully. “I could leave my hair the original shade and wear a suit, and they still don’t take me seriously.”
“I don’t know you very well,” Jesse said, “but in spite of your outfit, I’m impressed with the work you did this morning.”
“Thank you,” she blushed slightly. “So, I can stay the afternoon, temporary boss?”
“Unless you have someplace you need to be.”
“Nope. My next fast food stint is tomorrow night.”
“Can you work tomorrow?” That would take him up to the weekend.
He let her eat the rest of her hamburger. “I need to visit Josie. Do you think she’s up for visitors?”
“I’ll call Mom later and ask.”
An empty glass tipped over, and the leftover water spread across the table. Jesse stared. “Did you see that?”
Mara grinned. “Of course.” She looked to Jesse’s side. “That was rather rude of you. What’s your hurry?”
“Yeah.” She squinted at the side. “He looks like a refugee from the eighties. He’s got a mullet.” She addressed the man. “Dude, you’ve been dead for years. Another day won’t hurt you.” She grinned. “He’s not very happy with me.”
“Can he hurt you?”
“Yeah, but he won’t, will you?” She nodded. “He’s still pretty mad.”
“So,” Jesse mused, looking down at his coffee, “we have two murder victims. The question is that if Mrs. McIver killed this man — we don’t even know his name — why was she walking around scot-free.” He blinked. “That’s the man in the coffin.”
“Huh?” Mara was using a French fry to chase around some catsup on her plate. “What man in what coffin?”
“One of the things I took to the police station this morning was a notebook of my wife’s. In the notebook were drawings — I don’t know where they came from — but one was of the murder scene.”
“You saw the murder scene?”
“Not exactly. The detective confirmed it.”
“And this guy was there?”
“No. The next drawing was of a male in a small space. I thought it was a coffin. But what if it was a wall? Or maybe it was a floor.”
Mara looked a little sick. “Mrs. McIver drywalled her murder victim into a wall?”
Jesse closed his eyes in order to visualize the picture. “Mara, have you ever read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’?”
“Yes,”she looked even sicker. “You’re saying that he’s buried behind a brick wall?”
“But…” he said. “How can I communicate that to the police without seeming… guilty?”
“Say you heard it from a psychic?”
“I don’t think Detective Bowers would put much faith in psychics.”
“Tell the truth?” She grinned.
“Only as a last resort.” He started to stand up. “Well, we should get back to work.”
“Yes, boss.” Mara said.
“Stop calling me that.”
“Well, you are.”
Jesse made it through the afternoon, but he knew he was going to have to triple-check the return he worked on the next day. His mind kept going back to the murder scene. Why did Mrs. McIver kill this unknown male, and who killed her? And if it were revenge for killing the man, why in the world did the murderer wait so long?
It made no sense.
Were the two murders actually related?
Of course, they were related. If he believed Mara — and, oddly enough, he did — the two murder subjects knew each other. In fact, the man said that Mrs. McIver murdered him.
The police had to find the body.
But how to let the police know? He doubted they were looking behind the walls or in the floors for a decades old corpse.
He thought about it all afternoon. When it was getting close to five, he decided that he had worked enough — after all, it was a long, upsetting day. And he had to make sure that Mara took off, too. He got up, stretched, and went out into the main office.
Mara looked up. “Whatcha need, boss?”
“It’s quitting time,” he said, “but I need your advice.”
She grinned. “Not for accounting, I take it?”
“Not exactly.” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever had this situation before? Where you’ve had a murder victim follow you around?”
She swallowed. “Not exactly. When I go to the hospital, I see all sort of sad spirits, and some very angry people, but none of them have followed me around. Of course, I never let them know I see them.”
“Why the exception now?”
“They’re bothering you.”
She shrugged and looked away. “I’m not sure. How should I know?”
Jesse got the impression that her answer wasn’t the whole truth, but let it pass. “You could ask them.”
“They won’t answer,” Mara said, definitively. “Is it that important?”
“No,” Jesse said, frowning. “I guess not.” He sighed. “We need to let the police know there’s another body in the house, but if we do, I’m still the prime suspect.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “I don’t suppose that we can tell them to look in the walls. Unless you can convince the police that you see ghosts.”
“I don’t see ghosts,” Jesse said. “You do.”
“And you see how successful I am.”
Jesse shook his head. He wasn’t following this conversation at all, so he may as well change the subject. “Mara,” he said, hesitating, “have you been in contact with your Mom and your aunt today?”
“Actually,” she said. “Mom just texted me, wondering if I was coming.”
“Would you mind if I go, too?”
She stared at him, then beyond him. “Of course.”
“My.… friends getting anxious?”
“Not at the moment.”
He blushed. “The police brought me to the station, and I don’t have a car. May I have a ride?”
Mara grinned. “Of course, boss.”
Oddly enough, her car was almost dull, compared to Mara. It took just ten minutes to get to the hospital and Jesse could tell that Mara was a careful driver. As they approached the door, he observed Mara tense up and pull into herself. She caught him looking at her. “Sorry. A lot of sad people here.” He nodded.
As they approached the room, he pulled back and let Mara go in first. She went in, then poked her head around the door. “All clear.”
Josie was in bed, and as she saw him, she pulled her sheet up further. “Hello, Mr. Wolford.”
“Mrs. Porter,” he said.
“You mean,” Mara said, “you’ve worked together all of those years and you’re still not on a first name basis.”
“I’ve tried,” Jesse said. “She didn’t want to.”
“It wasn’t proper,” Josie said. The other lady in the room — obviously Josie’s sister – grinned.
“Josie,” she said. “Honestly.”
“This is my Mom,” Mara said. “Jamie.”
Jesse looked Jamie over as he was shaking her hand. Her style was halfway between Josie’s and Mara’s — Jesse could see her being a late-era hippie, if they had such things in the seventies.
“Sorry I couldn’t come to work,” Josie said.
“You had a pretty good excuse,” Jesse said mildly.
She smiled, and Jesse could see one side of her face droop slightly. She glanced at her sister.
“Take all the time you need,” Jesse said.
She closed her eyes. “Mr. Wolford,” she said, “the doctors say I’m going to recover completely, but you know I’ve been thinking about retiring.…”
“Under the circumstances,” he said, “I wouldn’t blame you.”
“I hate to leave you in the lurch,” she started.
He glanced at Mara. “I’m not sure you have,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed by your niece today. If she’s interested, I’d like to hire her.… for a trial period.”
He had to add that. After all, she had just been there one day.
“Boss, if I say yes too fast, will that make you nervous?”
Josie glanced at her, then at him.
“Mara?” Jamie said.
“Mom. He knows.”
Josie’s eyes widened. “He does?”
“I didn’t tell you what happened this morning,” he said, “and what’s happened since….” He explained the situation. “…. so we need to figure out how to tell the police without getting me arrested.”
The four sat silent for a minute. “Well,” Josie said, “that is a dilemma.” She grinned. “So the day I get sick, you get charged with murder, Mr. Wolford.”
“Shut up,” he smiled.
“More excitement than you’ve had for twenty-five years.”
They were silent again. “I wonder how the food is in prison,” Jesse said, “because I’m going to have to say something.” He looked at Mara. “Can you get one of your friends to cause a fuss around the body so that the police will look there?”
Mara laughed. “It doesn’t work that way. Some days, I can barely.…”. She sobered suddenly, and looked off to one side. Josie gasped, then closed her mouth. Jesse noticed that she nodded.
Mara’s mother looked at the two. “You two saw something.”
“Yeah,” Mara said. “One of them just agreed to kick up some dirt in front of the body. By the way, he said he was buried in a floor.”
“You know,” Josie said, “you could always tell the police that Martha Ellen was a psychic. I would back you up.”
“Was she?” Mara said.
“Not that I know of,” Jesse shrugged. “She was very empathic, though. Hated to see anything suffer, including fictional characters. The Good Lord knows she put up with my moods cheerfully. Mrs. Porter and my wife were a lot alike.”
“It may take a while for our friend,” Mara nodded at the empty air, “to do anything.”
“And,” Jesse said. “I’m exhausted. I need to go home.” He looked at Mara. “Can you go to the office tomorrow?” He glanced at Josie for permission. She nodded.
“If you don’t mind,” she said, “as soon as the doctor lets me, I’d like to come in and help train Mara.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t want to kick you out.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. “In the meantime, boss, get out of here and get some rest.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he smiled, “after I go see the detective.”
“Mr. Wolford,” Lt. Bowers said, looking up from his desk. “I’m surprised to see you in here so late.”
“Did you think I would leave town?” He sat in the chair Bowers offered him, and looked at the lieutenant’s desk. Apart from the paperwork he obviously was working on, the top was neat. No personal items, except for a small statue of the Scales of Justice and a cup of coffee he assumed was cold, because he didn’t see any steam. He nodded approvingly.
“No,” he said slowly. “I got the impression you were a bit humiliated to be held here.”
“Well,” Jesse said, “my reputation is at stake. And I wanted to give you another bit of information that you probably won’t believe.”
Bowers’ face turned stony. Oops, thought Jesse. Bad phrasing.
“Only because I have a feeling you don’t believe in the supernatural,” he hastened to add. “In fact, I’m somewhat of a skeptic, myself.”
Lt. Bowers still didn’t look too happy, but he seemed to relax a little bit. “The judges generally take dim views of evidence gained by supernatural means.”
Jesse winced. “Right.” Better not mention the spirits that Mara said were hanging around him. “I was wondering if you had looked at the drawings in my wife’s sketchbook.”
“I have,” he said, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that the drawings were coincidental. After all, she passed quite a while ago, didn’t she?”
“Yes.” He paused. “Wait a minute. You’ve ruled out that I drew those drawings?”
Justin grinned. “You’re still trying to incriminate yourself, aren’t you?”
Jesse swallowed. “Oh. Yeah.”
“Well, the jury’s still out on that. We tried to find your employee, Mrs. Porter, but we can’t seem to find her.”
“That’s because she’s in the hospital.”
Justin looked at him suspiciously.
“She had a TIA. A slight stroke. Her room number is 432. She’ll probably be in there for a couple of days. I just came from there.”
Lt. Bowers noted that down.
“Anyway,” Jesse continued. “My wife was somewhat of a psychic. She could sometimes see things before they happened, and sometimes had bad feelings about places. I think one of those drawings was about Mrs. McIver’s house.” He closed his eyes, asked for strength and forgiveness, and went on. “I think she was trying to say that there was another body in that house.”
“Mr. Wolford,” Justin said, “our detectives have been from the top of the house to the bottom. I think we would have found another body if there was one there.”
“It’s just a crawl space with a dirt floor.”
“Lt. Bowers, have you ever seen the movie ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’?”
“Are you trying to tell me the body was buried in the basement?”
Jesse stayed quiet and shrugged. “I don’t know. I do know my wife was accurate in her predictions.” He hoped that whoever was hanging around him had listened to Mara and had laid down a clue.
“I should take you with me, if only to prove that you’re wrong.” His phone rang, and he looked at the caller ID. “Excuse me.”
“Bowers…. Yes. You did? Okay. Okay.” He was quiet for a while, then glanced over at Jesse, looking a little startled. “There was? It was? Okay. We’ll have to wait for the autopsy. Thank you.” He set the phone down and stared at Jesse.
“How did you know?”
Jesse furrowed his brow.
“We just found another two bodies in the basement. One was an infant. Another was a full grown man with a hole through his forehead.”
“But you knew about the man.”
“How did they find them? I just told you about him.”
“They heard a noise in the basement like a man shouting. When they went down to look, it looked like something had been digging, and they saw a bone. When they dug further, they found the skeletons of a man and an infant side by side.”
“Good Lord,” Jesse said.
“It takes at least twelve years for a body to decompose in soil,” Lt. Bowers said. “My guess is that they’ve been there longer.”
The phone rang again. “Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.”
He stared at Jesse. “There are at least two more infants.”
“Oh, my God.”
“This is a bigger murder situation than I thought.”
“Is it possible the house was built over the bodies?” Jesse didn’t think so, considering the spirit hanging around him, but he had to ask.
“It’s possible that the the bodies were buried before Mrs. McIver bought it. We’ll have to wait for the preliminary analysis,” he sighed. “And I’ll talk to the detectives on scene.”
“May I ask if you’ve found anything else out?”
“Oh. Yeah. You’re definitely clear. Your fingerprints were nowhere to be found. We’re running the fingerprints we’ve found through AIFIS, but there was one set we couldn’t identify.” He sighed. “And those were the one on the gun.” He looked up from his desk and stared at Jesse. “Although you coming in with information right before we verified it puts you in a strange position.”
“I’ve been in a strange position since Mrs. McIver was murdered. And that was this morning,” Jesse muttered, and he sat back. “Look, I hate lying, and I hate lying to the police.”
“Generally not a good policy, Mr. Wolford,” Justin said drily.
“But I really think you aren’t going to believe me.”
“My wife was not a psychic,” Jesse said. “I’ve been told that the ghost of Mrs. McIver and a strange male have been hanging around me.”
”But you don’t believe it?”
“Since Mrs. McIver was murdered, I’ve had a book pushed on the floor, I’ve been poked when no one was there, and I think somebody pointed out that gun to me.” He leaned forward. “Oh, and drawings show up in my wife’s drawing book that I swear weren’t there before. You tell me.”
Justin sighed. “You’re right. I shouldn’t believe you. But I do.” He opened his drawer. “The fact is, I took some crime scene pictures that I can’t give as evidence. I can show you these.” He pulled out some prints. In each one, there was a fog in the middle of the picture. One was tall and thin, one was short and fat.
Jesse shivered. “That one looks a little like Mrs. McIver.”
“That’s what I thought. But this is inadmissible in court, you know.”
“I suspected so.” He picked up his coffee. “I should introduce you to somebody.”
“My new secretary can see ghosts.”
Justin stared. “Really?”
“And, apparently, so could her aunt,” Jesse said. “My secretary who just retired today.”
“Told you you wouldn’t believe me. I barely believe it myself,” he shrugged. “Well, since you’ve found what I came here to tell you about, I should leave you alone.” He felt a poke in his side. He ignored it and started to get up.
Justin’s Scales of Justice tipped over. “Hey!” Justin said.
“I didn’t do that.”
“You must have.” He set it back upright. It fell over again. Justin picked it up and looked at the bottom. “It looks square.”
“It probably is.”
Justin set it firmly on the desk, holding it there for a second. He removed his hands slowly. It remained upright for a few seconds, giving Justin a chance to say “See?” Then it slowly tipped over in slow motion, as if someone was holding it and placing it on its side.
Justin stared at it a second.
“See what I mean?” Jesse said.
“Yes,” Justin said. “I’m not saying that this is real, but as I said, psychic phenomena is still not admissible in court.” He looked a little dazed while saying that.
“I know.” He left, leaving Justin to stare at the little scales.
“How did you sleep, boss?” Mara said, looking up as he walked in. Her hair was a bright red today.
“Actually, I passed right out after I went to visit the lieutenant.”
“Hopefully,” Mara smiled, “you went home first.”
He snorted, then went on. “I hope you don’t mind. I told him about you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Really.” She set her filing down. “Did he believe you?”
“Not initially. But after one of our friends pointed out the bodies in the basement and another one knocked over something on his desk — thrice — I think he’s coming around.” He grunted. “Before yesterday, I didn’t believe in ghosts.”
Mara looked at him, wide-eyed. “Wait. Bodies?”
“They found at least three babies buried in the basement, along with our young friend.”
“Oh,” she closed her eyes. “My Good Lord.” She opened her eyes. “I only saw the two.” She started, then looked past Jesse.
“One of them here?”
“Yeah. The guy. He looks distressed.” She faced the empty air. “What is it?” She shook her head. “Sound it out. I can’t hear you.” She seemed to concentrate for a moment. “Can you lead us to him?”
She picked up her purse. “His father. He’s dying.”
“His father? He has a father?” Jesse picked up his keys and sighed slightly. “Tell me where to go.”
She looked at nothing again. “It’s within walking distance.”
She led them down the street about a quarter of a mile to a run down motel. She went to door number four, which opened easily. There was a man on a bed, who looked up. “Oh, David brought you.”
“David?” Jesse said.
“Ssh,” Mara whispered. “Yes, sir, David led us here.”
“I want to make a confession. Are you the police?”
“No, sir,” Jesse said. “But I can call the police.”
“Please,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Jesse walked out of the room and pulled out Justin’s card. “Lieutenant?” He said quietly. “Could you please come to the Sunset hotel, room number four? This has to do with the case.”
The line was silent. “Did your friend lead you there?”
“Yes. Please hurry and bring an ambulance.”
“Someone is hurt?”
“No, but someone is dying.”
“I’ll be right there.”
He went back into the room and glanced at Mara, then at the man. She nodded. “He’s talking with David,” she whispered.
“Yes. The dying often see loved ones.” She shivered. “Another reason I don’t like the hospital.”
They watched him breathe. After ten minutes, Lt. Bowers drove up, followed by an ambulance. He walked into the room, glanced at Mara, opened his eyes wide at Jesse, then concentrated on the man on the bed.
“Sir?” Mara said. “The police are here.”
He opened his eyes. “Thank you. I would like to confess before I die.”
Lt. Bowers glanced at Jesse. “I’m listening, sir. I’ve also brought medical people.”
“No, it’s no use. I’m beyond medicine.” He stared Justin in the eye. “My name is Nelson McIver, and I shot my wife yesterday morning. Before yesterday, I was in a hospital far away from here. I stole a car, drove here, and shot my wife.”
Mara whispered. “Mrs. McIver is here, and she doesn’t look happy.”
“Go on,” Lt. Bowers said.
“I killed her because she smothered three of our babies and killed our last son, David.” He paused for breath. “I thought that all of them were crib deaths, until I caught her with David’s twin, Dean. I took David, left the house, moved to California, and changed my name.” He paused. “It was easier back then.”
“Then what happened?”
“When David was seventeen, he got mad at me and left. I don’t know how he found out about his mother, but he called me and said he was going to visit her. I never heard from him again.”
“Why did it take so long for you to trace him here?”
“I really never thought Myra would hurt him. She swore that he never showed up, and I was still in love with her, you see. Then a month ago, I got a call in the hospital from Myra. She was developing Dementia. She asked about David, then stopped and said, oh, he’s in the basement and hung up. I knew what that meant, because I had buried all of our little ones in the basement.”
“Why?” Mara blurted out.
“She said she couldn’t bear to be away from them. No one knew we had had them, you see, so I didn’t see the harm. Neither of us had any family worth talking about.” He stared Justin in the eye. “I went to the house, asked her about David. She admitted it, then pulled a pistol on me, forcing me out of the house. I shot through the window, and I shot her between the eyes.” He closed his eyes. “You can check my prints. I’ve written everything down in the notebook in the nightstand.” He took a slow breath. “Thank you, officer.”
“For.… listening.” He glanced to the side. “Thank you, David. I can come now.” He closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath.
Bowers called for the paramedic, who checked the man over. The paramedic shook his head. He was gone.
Jesse followed Mara out of the door. She was smiling, broadly. “They’re together now and have gone into the light, boss,” she said, then glanced at Bowers. “Lieutenant?”
“You’re the psychic?” Jesse could tell that he said that like he didn’t believe it.
“I’m the person who can see ghosts. I wouldn’t call that a psychic,” Mara said sharply.
“Do you see Mrs. McIver?” Jesse said.
“No…” Mara said. “I suspect she went back to her house.” She shivered. “I wouldn’t want to live in that house without a good solid exorcism.”
“I would’ve thought that she would have gone to the other place.”
Mara frowned. “Who’s to say that this world isn’t hell to an evil person like her? She can’t do anything substantial now.”
Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Interesting philosophy.”
Mara shrugged. “But I’ve seen the light and a little of what comes after not to believe in it.” She stared at Lieutenant Bowers. “Unlike those people who have no imagination.”
“I wouldn’t say no imagination,” Lieutenant Bowers said mildly. “Just no experience in paranormal happenings. And, as I said, paranormal evidence isn’t admissible in court.” He held out his hand. “Truce, Ms…” he glanced at Jesse.
“Mara Jameson,” she said. “Truce, Lieutenant.”
Jesse glanced at the two of them, sharply. They were much the same age, but very different. Still — he shook his head. He was no matchmaker.
“Well,” he said. “Lieutenant, you have my number. I should get back to work.”
“Yes, boss,” Mara said. “We should.”
“Yes, Mara,” he said, mildly.
“Boss,” Mara said, her voice sounding a bit strange. “Could you come out here, please?”
“What is it?” Jesse raised his head from the spreadsheet he was concentrating on. This really wasn’t a good time, but it had only been a couple of weeks. She would learn.
“We have a visitor.”
Jesse felt a poke in his side. He closed his eyes. Not again. Going out into the front office, he saw a Mara looking at nothing in the middle of the room. “One of your special visitors?” He said.
“Is it sitting down?”
“No.” She concentrated. “I think he’s saying that he’s one of your clients.”
“And that he was murdered.”
Jesse closed his eyes. He could think of only one client shorter than he was. Then he thought, not again….