Uncial Press Aloha, Oregon
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
ISBN 13: 978-1-60174-155-4
Copyright ©2013 by Patricia Jackson
Copyright © 2013 by Judith B. Glad
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Thanks as always to my wonderful husband and best friend, David for his love and support.
Strangers who happened to pass through Quisby, Alabama, were often heard to express their curiosity about the property on the south road. The weathered sign hung crookedly on one of the imposing stone pillars; the faded words "Cyder Hill" still just legible. A strong padlock and thick chain barred access through the heavy iron gates.
Their questions always remained unanswered--hanging there like the fog hangs over a swamp on a fall morning...
The dog days of summer had drawn to a close, and the slight crispness in the air hinted at a future without heat, humidity and bugs. I stood in the doorway of my new office, watching the sexiest man in the world ride away into the morning mist on his Harley. That I would see him again, I knew for sure, but how soon it would be was not so clear. I had returned to my home town of Quisby, Alabama just a few days ago. Harland and I had ridden here on our Harleys from Boston, Massachusetts, where I had been living for the past year.
A bunch of mixed emotions ran through me. Sadness at seeing Harland go, fear that I had done the wrong thing in letting him go, excitement and anticipation at the prospect of starting my new venture, and an eagerness to bring my mama's murderer to justice.
Looking back, I realized this past summer had been one of the best and worst in my life. On the down side, I had been fired from my job as an IT tech for showing my boobs to the company nerd. I mean, was that really such a big deal? I had also been shot at, blown up in a bomb blast, ridden off the road, and attacked and kidnapped by a very scary man.
Worst of all, I had lost my mama to a crazed murderer.
On the plus side, I had allowed Harland O'Connor into my life. Because of Jimmie-Ray, I can't use the "L" word when describing my feelings for any man, but the feelings I have for Harland are close.
The other good thing that happened this past summer was me discovering I was not only capable of being a private investigator, but also that I was great at it, and I loved it. I had proved this while working for Harland, up in Yankee territory.
I grew up in Quisby, where residents mostly just shake their heads and ignore the negative comments from strangers passing through the town. Remarks about the weeds growing through the cracked pavements, and the stained and peeling paint on some of the store fronts. Strangers seem to be particularly offended by the junk laying around in peoples' yards. The way we see it, if you don't like it, you're free to leave.
The pulp and paper mill located a few miles outside of Quisby is the major employer. In fact, if it wasn't for the mill, there probably wouldn't be a town called Quisby, or it would be a lot smaller than the 1,200 that the census bureau said there were last year. The mill is on the outskirts of town. On the west side. Anyone who has ever driven past a pulp and paper mill will know that they give off a really bad smell--worse than the worst fart you've ever smelled. The wind usually blows the smell toward the northwest, but on rare occasions the whole town of Quisby smells like all the inhabitants farted at once.
I ran my fingers across the sign which, in bold red lettering, said
REDNECK DETECTIVE AGENCY
The sign on the other side of the door proclaimed that this was also the office of
QUISBY REAL ESTATE--BROKER PERVIS TAUNTON.
My Uncle Pervis and I had closed the real estate office when the recession took hold and I could no longer make enough money to support myself selling real estate. That was when I followed my best friend Jane northward to find work. She had moved up there when we both graduated from high school, and she persuaded her married lover, Andrew, to give me a job in the computer firm where he was the boss.
I wasn't happy about moving into Yankee territory, but work was hard to find in the South at that time. It turned out to be a good move in the end, because I met Harland. He got shot and had to stay in hospital for a while just about the time I lost my job. He was a P.I.--private investigator to the uninitiated--and his clients all seemed to need answers in a hurry. Most of them would probably have taken their business elsewhere if I hadn't stepped in and taken over their cases when I did. Long story short, I solved a few cases and learned a lot about being a P.I.
When Mama was murdered in Quisby, I knew I was gonna investigate her death. And here I was, back in Quisby and ready to start.
Uncle Pervis owned my office building. It was one of those little old wooden houses built up on blocks that had been re-zoned for commercial use. He had bought it a couple of years previously and done some repairs and refurbishing, which included painting the outside a dark teal color, replacing the old wooden window frames with modern fake wood ones, putting on a new dark gray shingle roof, and sanding and polishing the old hardwood floors.
When the housing market crashed and I left to go north, he simply closed the doors and locked it up. A few days ago he had given me permission to use my key, which was still on my key chain, and take over the building again.
Harland had helped me clean up. We had to knock all the dust off the furniture and wipe the cobwebs off the ceiling and sweep and mop the floors. He laughed when I showed him my old real estate files, still in the cabinets exactly where I had left them.
Now standing in the doorway looking in, I almost felt like I had never left. I might have even been able to convince myself that everything that happened in Massachusetts was just a dream if it wasn't for Harland.
Harland was most definitely real. In the past few days we had indulged in some very real and very hot sex. I felt myself getting warm and tingly all the way from my head to my toes, just thinking about it, and besides, I had a hickey--two hickeys and a few bruises--to remind me just how good it was.
I gazed wistfully down the road where I had watched him until I could no longer see him, sighed heavily, and went inside. I poured myself a mug of still hot, sweet tea from the pot on the stove in the kitchen. I much preferred tea to all the coffee I had had to consume in Yankee territory.
Being that the office was once a home, there was a good sized kitchen, with space enough for the small square table and four chairs. Uncle Pervis had replaced the countertops with Formica and put in a more modern stove and a new refrigerator.
From the parking lot, the steps led up onto the covered porch and through the entrance to the reception area, which was previously the living room. Pervis and I had furnished it with a sofa and three easy chairs, and a desk with a computer and two straight-backed chairs across from it. I had used this desk when I had real estate customers. Pervis had brought some really cool oversized pictures of Quisby fifty years ago for the walls, with old cars in the streets and people dressed in old fashioned clothing.
My office was in what had been the single bedroom. I had placed the oversized desk right in the center, facing the door, with two chairs, one in each corner, and I lined up the bank of file cabinets against the back and one side wall. I had filled the free wall with an enormous map of Quisby and its surrounding areas.
I once saw this word in the dictionary that would describe me quite well--"callimammapygian". It means having shapely breasts and buttocks. I am five-nine, have long, wavy reddish hair, green eyes, a few freckles--well quite a lot, actually--and take a fourteen to sixteen dress size, depending upon how much flesh I want to expose. I am not fat, nor am I flabby, just curvy and luscious, and definitely never angular.
This was my first day of operation, and I knew that in a small town like Quisby, the residents were itching to know everything they could about my new business. That's the way it is in small towns all over the world. I had a silent bet with myself that Connie Hazlewood would be my first visitor. She was the town gossip, and made it her business to know everything about everyone else's business. It was a given that it was impossible to keep a secret around her.
Sure enough, I barely had time to take my first sip of tea when I heard a car crunch on the gravel outside. The wooden floor protested loudly as Connie waddled into my office, all two hundred and some pounds of her. Maybe even three hundred pounds. I idly wondered how much weight the old floor could hold, and had a brief mental picture of her crashing through it.
She knew the way to my office, having been there before, and sank gratefully into the chair in the corner of the room, across from my desk, without an invitation. Her four chins and underarms all shook together. I hoped the chair was strong enough.
"Connie", I said with an enthusiasm I wasn't feeling. "Haven't seen you for ages. How are you doing?"
"Oh, I still have a bad heart, and my arthritis is giving me a lot of problems." She paused to catch her breath. "But other than that I'm doing okay." She fluffed out her brassy blonde hair and smacked her lips together in an attempt to spread the thick coat of bright orange lipstick around. All she really did was smudge it around the outside of her lips more.
I stood up and went into the kitchen, pulled my only other clean mug off the shelf and filled it with tea, which I set down in front of her.
"So, I know you're here to find out as much stuff as you can about me so you can spread it around town." I eyed her over my mug as I took a sip of my tea.
She didn't bat an eyelid. "Actually, I wanted to welcome you back to Quisby in person." She paused again. "And find out what you've been up to."
What a surprise. I sighed and forced a smile. "Well, as you can see, I've started a private investigation firm. I'll be helping people--Quisby residents--to solve problems they can't take to the sheriff's department."
"Well, I cannot see how you think you'll make enough money to live on by doing that."
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. "I'll also be doing investigation work for the deputies, and most likely for Podge Thompkins and Dan Wright." Podge was the local lawyer and had been practicing in Quisby ever since I could remember. Dan had started his practice around two years previously. "Maybe I'll visit the lawyers in Grover, too."
"And what makes you think you are qualified to do this? I could also start a private investigation business. I'm about as qualified as you are. I probably know more about what's going on in this town than you."
"I have no doubt about that. You should. Start an agency, I mean. There's no reason why you shouldn't." I stared her down.
"Well, you know, with my health problems and all it might not be a good idea"
She wanted to know who Harland was. "I've seen you around town these past few days, riding around on a bike with a strange man..."
"Yeah, and he left this morning, as I'm sure you are aware. He was my boss. He taught me all I know about being a private investigator."
"Well. From what I've heard you didn't act like he was a boss. In fact, everyone in town seems to think he's your boyfriend."
I didn't answer. She wanted to know where I was living, and why I now had a Harley instead of my old SUV. She probably would have asked me which hand I used to wipe my ass with if I had given her enough leeway, but I kept her on a tight rope and chose my answers carefully, fighting hard to restrain myself from throwing her out. It would have taken too much effort anyhow, given her weight.
She had been saving the bombshell for last, and the triumph in her voice was unmistakable when she said, "Well I have things to do so I'd best move along. Oh... I guess you'll be taking on some work for Jimmie-Ray. He's a lawyer, and you said you will be working for lawyers."
I was silent. Struck dumb. I didn't want to give her the satisfaction of showing her how much of a shock this was to me, but I'm sure it showed in my face, because I felt the blood drain from it and I knew I must be ghostly pale. She left with a triumphant bustle of skirts and a swing of her ample hips and no sign of any arthritis.
I sat there, frozen with shock, a million things churning around in my head. There was no question which Jimmie-Ray she was referring to. I couldn't believe he was back in Quisby. The last I had heard he was living with his pasty little Yankee wife in Oklahoma. I put my head in my hands and sighed and sighed, and was thinking that I should text Jane, and I didn't notice that I had another visitor until he coughed politely.
I jumped and found myself looking into Zeb Walton's piercing blue eyes. His eyes were pretty much all that showed through his bushy grey beard and shaggy eyebrows. His beard was stained yellow from the tobacco he chewed, and the skin that was showing was tanned brown, and wrinkled. I stuck out my hand. His was rough from work, and I didn't have to look to know his fingernails were dirty. I told him to sit and made a mental note to install a chime on the front door.
We talked a little about the weather and about my experiences with working in an investigation office. I knew he would eventually get around to telling me why he was visiting me. People who live in small towns are generally not in any hurry to do anything much. He wasn't one of the curious or gossipy people of the town, and rather kept to himself most of the time.
"There is a reason I'm here," he said.
I leaned forward and looked him in the eyes. "Go ahead, Zeb, I'm listening," I said. I held a pen poised above a yellow pad, hoping that I appeared to have my full concentration leveled on him, when really my head was still spinning from what Connie had just told me.
"Well, it's about my ma," he said. "She passed sixteen years ago."
I nodded and said nothing. Everyone knew that.
"She... She had a lot of money hidden away when she passed, but I was never able to find it." Now that was news to me.
"And you want me to see if I can figure out where it is?" I said, while I wrote: CASH LEFT BY MOTHER.
He nodded. "It was a sizeable sum. She won the Lotto, you know."
Now he had my full attention. I didn't know. "Like how much?"
"I reckon it's somewhere around five hundred thousand or more. Maybe even a million."
I was silent, and I think my mouth hung open for a while. "Is it in some bank and you don't know which one?"
He shook his head. "She never had no bank account. She took the money in cash. I saw it."
I put my hand over my mouth. My brain was churning through the gears. "So, you want me to find the money?" He nodded. I paused while I wrote a five and six zero's, then corrected it and erased one of them. "Okay. I charge a percentage of any cash recovered. Like five percent. Is that okay?"
He nodded. "I'll be happy to give you a percentage if you can help me find it." He rested his hands on my desk and picked his nails.
"I also charge an up-front fee to help cover any costs involved during my investigation. And to make certain clients are really serious about getting the information they are requesting."
He scratched his beard. "How much?"
"Five hundred dollars. That's just a deposit, though. I charge by the hour the same way a lawyer does, only I'm not as expensive. Thirty dollars an hour is all I'm asking."
He screwed up his lips and looked down at his hands. I figured he was trying to decide if it was worth the expense. He lifted his head and said, "I reckon I can handle that. If you find that cash it'll be worth it."
"If I find it. I'm great at what I do, but I'm not a miracle maker." I paused to let that sink in. I was a kid when his mother, Miss Earlene died. Not even in middle school yet. "Okay, I need to ask you a few questions. You said you saw the greenbacks. Where and when would that have been?"
He screwed up his eyes. "Mmm... It was a long time ago but I remember 'cause it was the day she died... I was over at her house when she told me about it and she asked me to hide it for her." He looked up to see if I was listening.
"I'm all ears."
"I stuck it in the ceiling. There was two big canvas carry bags. I remember they was gray--or maybe brown. And heavy. Also remember wonderin' where she got them, 'cause I hadn't never seem em before."
He pulled a tin out of his pocket, flipped the lid and dug into it. I like the smell of chewing tobacco--it's kind of like licorice. He stuffed a plug of it into his right cheek. It made his beard bristle and stick out on that side.
"How do you know the money didn't burn up with the house?"
He shook his head, and shifted the plug to the other cheek. "I was looking for it the day of the fire. I climbed on a chair and felt around for it where I knew I had put it. It was gone. I went back to my place to get a stepladder and flashlight so I could see if it had been pushed farther into the attic. The next thing I saw flames lickin' out of the roof. By the time I got back to the house, the fire was too big. I couldn't get in. The house was almost completely burned up. Then the fire truck arrived, and they wouldn't let me go in. That cash is someplace, I know it."
I looked down at my notepad again. "I think I should visit your ma's house, or what's left of it, so you can give me an idea of where that money was."
"Like I said, there ain't much left of it since the fire. It was a long time ago."
"I still want to see it." I lifted my pad and stared at the desk calendar. "Can we meet out there next Tuesday at--say two in the afternoon?"
When he agreed, I said, "I'll get a contract printed up. If you can wait a few minutes, you can sign it now and give me the five hundred dollar deposit."
I didn't keep a spittoon in my office and was very glad when he went out and paced in the parking lot by his truck while he waited.
My computer was already on. I pulled up the contract that I had copied from Harland's practice and adapted to mine, filled in the details, and printed it out. When it was done, I walked to the door and waved it at him. "I just need you to sign this and give me the deposit."
He came back in, dug in his pocket and handed me a wad of money. I counted it out and placed it in my top desk drawer, wondering why he was carrying so much cash around with him. I went over the contract with him to make certain he understood the terms. "Here's a pen. Just sign there and write the date there."
"Now I don't have a phone. Got sick and tired of them cutting it off when I didn't pay the bill and I had to pay a reconnection fee every time. Figured it's a lot less stressful to just do without, but I'll be there Tuesday. After that, I'll probably also stop by every now and then to find out if you've found anything, if that's okay."
I stood in the doorway and watched him drive away in his battered truck, wondering why I hadn't heard him pull up.
I fingered the cash. My first case. Just like that. Half a million dollars and nobody knew. Correction--someone knew about but they weren't talking. I was sure of that. Someone had to know. Unless it all burned up. That would be a shame.
I was feeling pretty happy. Then I remembered Jimmie-Ray. How could I have been in town and not see him over the past few days? How could I not have known he was there? I was surprised at how angry I still felt that he stood me up on my wedding day and went off with that bitch.
Before I had time to do some serious moping, Velda Maynard pulled up in my parking lot. I was really happy to see her, because one of the cases that I knew I had to solve was the murder of her husband, M.J. Maynard, which I thought could have been related to my mother's murder.
This murder had taken place when I was at high school thirteen years ago, and had haunted me in recent months.
Velda had re-married a couple of years after M.J. died and I asked her how that was going. "It's okay," she said, "Clancy is a hard worker and he gives me his paycheck every two weeks. The kids like him too." She looked around suspiciously as if she thought someone might be hiding in the filing cabinet, lowered her voice and leaned in closer to me.
"You know your mama visited Miss Brandy two days before she died?"
Actually I did know. My cousin Rowena had told me the same thing at the funeral. But I wasn't about to give Velda that information.
"Miss Brandy's mind has gone, but I reckon she told your mama something."
"Like what?" I said, while my head churned.
She shook her head. "I dunno, but it's best left alone. Just...just don't go asking questions about it around town. You'll get Miss Brandy into trouble."
I wanted to ask how you could get a woman who was in the nut house into more trouble than she already was in. I changed the subject.
"What about M.J.?"
"What about him?" She sounded angry.
"Has anyone ever looked like they could be the killer?"
She just sat there and stared at me with a blank look in her eyes.
"You can't have forgotten that time you told me you would kill him while pointing that loaded shotgun at me. It's not funny to have someone point a gun at you, especially when you're buck naked, you know."
"Twila Taunton, you know very well I wasn't pointing it at you. It was your skanky whoring cousin who was hiding behind you who deserved to die."
"I don't know if Rowena was sleeping with M.J. or not," I lied. "I just remember you saying you were gonna kill M.J. Two weeks later, he was dead. The killer's never been caught."
She jumped up off her chair. "I knew this would happen, when I saw your sign. Why? Why can't you just leave it alone? He's gone and I didn't kill him. I told you--leave it alone or you'll go the same way as your mama," she shouted, while angry tears poured down her cheeks. She gave me the evil eye and shook her finger at me. Then she stomped out of the office and kicked up gravel with her tires.
Well that was weird. Maybe she wasn't as innocent as she had proclaimed. I didn't owe her anything and I was more curious than ever now, and more determined to find the answers. Especially if Mama's murder was also related to M.J.'s.
If it was.
No one else came in for a while, and my mind went back to Jimmie-Ray. I picked up the phone and punched in Pops' number.
"Yeah?" it was Aunt Essie. She's actually my great aunt, my mama's aunt, and since Mama died she had been taking care of Pops.
"Why didn't you tell me Jimmie-Ray was back in town? I had to hear it from Connie." There was a silence on the other end for a while, but I heard her wheezing.
"Some said it wouldn't do any good to tell you. They said you might throw a tantrum--like you did when you cut up your wedding dress."
"Some... Who are some? And since when you listen to anything other people tell you? I don't buy it. There's something else going on. Now spill it."
"Nothin' to tell. You know he's a lawyer. Well, he opened a practice here. His office is on Magnolia Street, behind the bakery."
"What about his wife?" I had to ask.
"Not with him--he doesn't talk much about it. Why don't you ask Connie?"
I thanked her and put the phone down while I digested the information. One thing I knew for sure. I would never do any work for him if he was the last lawyer in the world. He'd be lucky if I didn't kick him in the nuts again, like I did last time I saw him.
I locked up and walked across Main Street and a block north to get lunch at R.S.'s Sandwich Shop, where they still make the best fried catfish sandwich in the world. It was really good to be eating home-cooked southern food again. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it.
Main Street, as you may have guessed, runs through the center of town, and is also known as State Route 95. My office is at the north end, beside one of the two gas stations in Quisby. The other one is at the south end. They both have convenience stores attached to them where you can find cigarettes, beer, sodas, snacks, Lotto tickets and a limited selection of grocery items, and where travelers stop to use the restrooms, which are not always as clean as they might hope for.
The other gas station, at the far end of town has an auto repair shop and a tow truck. Neither of them is open on Sundays, so if you drive through Quisby on a Sunday, and you happen to have no gas or your car breaks down, you have to stay at one of the two hotels in town. The Quisby Inn, which is close to the town center, affectionately known to the local residents as the "Cockroach Inn", or the Riverside Inn at the southern end town, which is not close to any river. The railroad track runs close enough to shake the walls when a train rumbles though, an event that takes place around midnight every night.
R.S. wanted to chat, but I ordered take-out and took it back to the office, where I spent the afternoon on the computer, creating flyers and a fee schedule to distribute to the various businesses around the town. The flyers listed my services as: "surveillance, background checks, location of missing persons, divorce, process service, asset searches, child custody, investigation and cold cases."
I figured Connie must have gotten the word out because things got quiet and I managed to get a lot done.
Later in the afternoon, Uncle Pervis stopped by. He was Pop's youngest brother, and like Pops, was tall and lanky, with brown hair, crinkles around his eyes and a bald patch on the back of his head.
I thanked him again for keeping the office for me and not letting it out to anyone else. "Seems to me like I didn't have much of choice," he drawled. "Now you are for sure gonna be working the real estate business as well as the private eye stuff?"
I assured him I would. "The files are all still here, just as I left them, so I can just pick up where I left off."
"Things are still slow at my branch in Grover, but I reckon they're gonna start picking up again pretty soon. Those your wheels out there?"
"Yeah, sweet, huh?" We were talking about my new Harley, which I bought when my SUV was forced off the road with me in it, and had to be written off. I have always loved bikes and when I got the insurance check I bought a 2006 Sportster® 883 Low - XL883L with low mileage.
"Yeah, it's a nice bike, but how're you gonna show property with that--you gonna let people ride behind you?" Uncle Pervis was always thinking about real estate, and he had a valid point.
When I didn't come up with an answer, he said, "Well, I'm about due for a new truck, so I reckon I might have my old one repainted and let you use it. I'll get them to put the company logo on it and all. The good thing about this office being an old converted house is the one-car detached garage. You'll be able to keep it there." He pointed and started moving toward the door.
I followed him down the steps to the garage.
He took hold of the little piece of rope and pulled the door up. "We'll have to move some of these old boxes out and get rid of these cobwebs, but the truck'll fit in here."
I peered out at it, a red four-door Dodge 1500, not too old. Sweet.
"You can use it for detective work when you need it, too."
I threw my arms around him and gave him a big old hug and a kiss on the cheek. "That's why you're my favorite uncle. Thank you."
He pushed me off and brushed his clothes like I had crinkled them or something, pulled his cap onto his head and muttered something about being late for another appointment.
I watched him leave, and looked at my watch. It was almost four in the afternoon. I stuffed a bunch of flyers into my backpack, threw it over my shoulders, climbed onto my bike and headed out.
My first destination was Podge Thompkins' law office near the center of town on Main Street. He had been there ever since I could remember, and I could not imagine Quisby without the varnished wood doors and fancy gold letters. I parked my bike outside and the bell jangled noisily when I walked through the door. Podge's wife had worked the front desk forever until she had died a couple of years previously. It didn't look like he had hired anyone to fill her seat.
I heard his shuffling footsteps before he appeared in the doorway that lead into the back rooms. "Twila, Twila Taunton. I was wondering if you were going to come and see me." He beckoned me and I followed him into his office, where I yanked my backpack off my shoulders, set it on the floor by my feet, and perched on one of the overstuffed easy chairs across from his desk.
He settled himself in his enormous leather chair. "I'm guessing you've come to see if I need your services. Right?"
I nodded, pulled a bunch of flyers out of my backpack, peeled one off and handed it to him across his dark wooden desk, and stuffed the rest back into the backpack.
"Investigative surveillances, process serving, asset searches and background checks. Impressive. I'll take a look at my files and see what I can find that you can help me with." He stood and offered his hand. I had never shaken hands with him before and it seemed a little weird. His hand was podgy, like the rest of him, with short, fat fingers.
There were two law firms in the town, not counting Jimmie-Ray, who did not exist as far as I was concerned. Dan Wright was out, but I gave a flyer to his receptionist. I also left flyers at as many stores as I could get around to. It was a slow process because everyone wanted to ask questions and pass the time of day. No rat race here.
My last stop for the day was at the sheriff's office. Now I have a strong allergy to law enforcement officers, probably to do with some trouble I got into as a teenager, on more than one occasion. It took quite a lot of courage for me to voluntarily visit a place where the law was enforced. Cop shop, sheriff's office, prison, or court house--it was all the same to me.
My boyfriend Harland's twin brother Horton is a cop, and he had helped me to lose a little of that aversion, but a law enforcement officer is a law enforcement officer. It doesn't matter if he's a cop, a federal agent or a deputy sheriff. I still get a rash or want to sneeze when I'm around them.
Billy Bob Trout was sitting at the desk, his boots on the desk, reading a book. He leaped up and gave me the once over, apparently liking what he saw, because he licked his lips and the pupils of his gray-green eyes got bigger. He had always had a thing for me.
He finger-combed his spiky blonde hair. "Heard you was back." He indicated with a sweep of his arm that I should sit in the chair across from him, and dropped into his chair. There was no sign of his partner, Tibe Newton.
I handed him a flyer. "I have no doubt that you also heard what I'm doing, but I'll let you have this just in case you forget." He held the flyer in front of him and I saw his eyes move across it.
"Now you know we're still working on your mama's case. You can't be getting involved with it or you'll interfere with our investigation."
I grunted. They didn't need to know everything I was doing. "I want to work old cases for you--like Miss Edna Farley and M.J. Maynard. You've never solved them, have you?"
He stared at me, a slightly puzzled look on his face. "I don't mean to be disrespectful..." The way his eyes lingered on my breasts as he spoke may have been disrespectful. "...but what makes you think you can solve it when we couldn't?"
"You have too many other things to deal with and I know there's a limit to how much time you can spend on any one case. That's why they go cold when you run out of fresh clues." I hate sucking up to anyone, but sometimes it's necessary, and this was for a good cause.
He took a while to digest what I said, and then nodded sagely, his gaze never leaving my chest. "Yeah. I reckon that about sums it up."
"So, will the department pay me if I solve any of your old cases?" That was the important question.
"I guess so. I'll have to bring it up at my next meeting."
I stood up. "You have my fee schedule. Just let me know one way or the other." I started to leave.
"Don't be getting yourself into any trouble now. You're not trained to deal with criminals and they can be dangerous." I wondered whether I should show my gun to him or not. I had kept it in my backpack so far, and I decided to let that be a surprise for him. The less anyone knew about my business the better.
"Why Billy Bob Trout, I'll just call on you and you can come rushing to my aid and be my hero," I fluttered my eyelids and winked before making my exit and heading home.
Home. I had lucked out. The guest cottage in the Kitchener's property was still available and I had been able to rent it again. Nobody else had rented it since I had moved out, and the furniture was still how I had left it, except for a few cobwebs and a fine coat of dust. It hadn't taken me long to clean it up.
The cottage was really an old travel trailer on blocks, but it was quite spacious and they had re-done some of the interior. There was a screened-in frame porch added to it, and I was able to fit a good sized refrigerator out there, 'cause as anyone who had ever been in a travel trailer knows, the refrigerators they come with are really small, and you can't fit beer and food in them.
It was about the closest thing to home that I had. I certainly had no desire to move back in to my parents' single wide trailer, which I had had to do when the real estate business had died. It was one thing growing up there, but totally another now that I was all grown up.
* * * *
The next morning I had a new customer.
Robert Howard was a very large black man. I mean, he was about six-seven and built. His head and face were clean shaven, totally devoid of any hair, and his skin was really dark. He also had one of those unmistakable deep voices that black men seem to have. I told him to sit and he got right to it.
"I'm here to see if you still selling real estate?"
I said I was.
"Good. I been wondering what I was gonna do. You know those two lots on the east side--those five acre passels close to the river?"
I nodded. I knew just about every piece of real estate in Quisby, and who owned it now and who had owned it before, having even sold some properties several times over. These were two really pretty lots that he had inherited from his father. Rumor had it that his great, great grandfather--I'm not sure how many greats--had been a slave, and was given a couple hundred acres by his former master when he was freed. Over the years the land had been split up and sold and these two parcels, plus the one Robert and his wife lived on, were all that was left.
"I'm gettin' ready to retire soon and I been saving them for my retirement. I need to know how much you think I would get from them and how long it's likely to take to sell them."
"I'll work up a price from comparable properties that have sold recently, although it's not as easy to find comparables as it used to be, with the recession going on, Robert. Also, it is really hard to predict how long before they sell in this market. But there's that other problem with those lots."
"Yeah. The Drifter. You know, the dude Cleve Prentice boasted that he had killed--how long ago was that--twenty years ago, or more, and he said he buried him there."
He stared at me, his brow furrowed.
"Somehow we'd have to make certain that there isn't a body buried there, 'cause if someone was digging foundations for their house, or a hole for a septic system and they came across some human bones, they could make a giant headache for those people. Their project would most certainly be held up, and someone could insist that the site is checked to make certain it's not a Native American sacred burial ground, and you know how long all that stuff can take. They could make you responsible and demand their money back, you having been the one who's owned it for so long."
He scratched his chin. "So how do you propose we go about it?"
I scratched my chin. "I'll have to think about it. Nobody's ever bothered to investigate much so far as I know. There was only one deputy here when the murder took place--if there really was a murder, and he seems to have dismissed it as idle boasting. That's why Cleve was so bold about telling everyone--that and the fact that he was always drunk. I was just a kid at the time, and even I know that."
"What if I was to dig around on the properties?"
I told him that since the land belonged to him, he could dig all he wanted, but I cautioned him that he would have to go about it in a methodical way so that he didn't miss out any portions.
"I haven't retired yet. I still have my backhoe and dozer. I reckon I'll keep them even after I retire in case I ever need to do some side jobs when I get short of cash." Robert had offered land clearing and septic digging services in Quisby ever since I could remember.
He pulled his lower lip into his mouth and chewed on it for a while, and I lay back in my chair and folded my arms, giving him time to think. "I reckon I could measure out some sort of grid, and maybe mark it out with twine. Dig the land up section by section." He raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah. That sounds like a plan to me." I sat forward and leaned in close to him. "This is important. Whatever you do, don't tell anyone the real reason you're digging. We don't want the deputies coming round and trying to control the operation."
"Uh huh. You got a point there."
"And if you find anything, and I mean anything, call me. Nobody else." I handed him one of my new business cards.
I remained seated when he left. I was thinking about the Drifter. No one had ever found out his real name, and nobody knew if he really was murdered or not. Maybe he just left town without saying goodbye to anyone.
I had a feeling all the murders that had taken place in Quisby--in my lifetime at least--were somehow connected.
I thought about Bobbie Jo Brantley. Was she the key to everything? She was the person who had talked as if she knew the answers as to who committed the murders. At least she did when the murders took place. Maybe not the Drifter, 'cause she would have been too young then, but she told my cousin Rowena that M.J. Maynard killed Miss Edna Farley, who was found lying dead in the corn patch out back of her house.
She was also the one who had told Rowena that she knew who killed M.J. Maynard.
It was no secret that Bobbie Jo's mom, Miss Brandy Brantley, was one of the three women who had hung out with the Drifter. Miss Earlene Walton, Zeb Walton's mother also hung out with him, and Miss Edna Farley.
Two of them were dead now, and Miss Brandy was in the nut house.
The flyers worked. I got some business from the elementary school, who wanted background checks done on some applicants for teaching positions. Dan Wright, the lawyer, had some intelligence gathering tasks, plus surveillance work for me in a divorce case he was handling.
Background checks and information finding are like a gift for me. I am an expert on computers, thanks to my uncle Ray--my favorite uncle after Uncle Pervis--who lives in Atlanta. When I was at high school he used to give me his old computers, which weren't old in the real sense. He just liked to keep up with technology.
He worked for one of the dot com companies and every time Microsoft or Apple came up with a new operating system, or computers with faster processors or bigger hard drives were developed, he had to have a new one. His job depended on it.
To him, the computers he gave me were old and outdated, but the computer geeks at my high school in Grover had drooled with envy and hovered around me like a pack of hunting dogs every time I brought the latest one with me to class. I even got the job of taking care of the computer lab, but I had to be careful never to be seen hanging out with the nerds outside of the lab. Anyone who ever calls me a computer geek will be sorry.
Uncle Ray loved anyone who showed an interest in computers and he spent hours teaching me IT skills and some programming. He also showed me how to hack on the Internet. I never asked if hacking was a requirement of his job, but it made me feel real powerful to be able to secretly look at other people's files on their computers.
Hacking is not a science. It's more of an art form, and requires a lot of creativity and imagination. You have to be able to get inside other people's heads and figure out their passwords and what kind of other security measures they have put in place. Sometimes, I come across something I can't crack. That's when I email my ex-neighbor in Boston, Gasser Cunha. He's a master hacker--a total wizard--and I know for sure that he'll always get me the answers I need. Even though he smokes weed, I know he doesn't talk about the work I give him. Not to anyone.
The stuff the school asked me to do was child's play, and I had them all done and the reports printed out that same day. I delivered them to the school office, together with my first invoices. I was making money as a P.I. in my own firm. It felt damn good.
I stopped in to see Billy Bob at the sheriff's office and flopped down in the chair across from him. "Any news about giving me some work?"
"Yeah." He looked me up and down, as usual. "As a matter of fact, there is. You can handle Miss Edna Farley's cold case." He stood up and ambled over to the bank of file cabinets against the wall in the room behind him. He opened a drawer, closed it, opened another, dug around in it and pulled out a file. He sat down again and handed it to me across the desk.
"Go through it and I'll make copies of anything you want."
I wasn't surprised at how thin it was. I figured they had no leads and had given up long since. "What about M.J. Maynard?"
"One at a time, Twila. You solve this one and you can have the next one. That's how it's gonna work." That's what he thought. Apparently the cops had not put two and two together and linked the cases. That was good for me. It meant I knew more than they did. But I needed both files.
I leaned forward over the desk and crooked my finger at Billy Bob so I could whisper in his ear. He leaned forward in response. I had on my new transparent lace bra from Walmart, which didn't leave anything much to the imagination. "I think the two cases are related," I whispered. He didn't respond. "I need both files so I can link them." I moved upright again because it was the only way to get his mind back on the cases.
"I didn't hear that last bit," he said with a husky voice. I sighed, resisted rolling my eyes, and leaned toward him again. "I need the Maynard file, please." I lingered there for a while until I thought he had seen enough, then sat back and stuck my hand out to receive the file.
He didn't say anything. Just went and dug into the file cabinet, came out with the file, and walked around the desk to where I was sitting and tried to hand it to me, but his hand was shaking so much he dropped it. I knew that old trick. My skirt was pretty short and he was hoping I would get up and bend over and give him another eyeful. I thought about it, but decided he'd had enough freebies for one day. I just sat there, and waited him out. Eventually he picked up the file and stuffed all the papers back into it and set it on the table in front of me beside the other file.
"Who's the guy you were with when you came back--the one with the bike?"
"That was my boyfriend from Boston", I said. "I can make the copies, if you like."
Just then the phone rang and he was compelled to answer it. I went over to the copy machine and copied everything they had in both files and stuffed it into my backpack. Billy Bob was still on the phone, so I gave him a wave and exited the building and headed back to my office. Darkness was creeping up on me, so I dumped the copies on my desk and decided to call it a day.
* * * *
After I had gone through all the copies the next morning, made detailed notes, and put them in my own file folders, I dialed Pops' number.
"Aunt Essie, just the person I wanted to speak with. I need some info from you. You've been living here long enough to know some stuff. Know where I can find my wayward cousin Rowena? I have some questions for her."
There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. "Now I think you are onto something with that one. She's AWOL. Disappeared. Nobody's seen her since the funeral. I suppose you know her parents joined a weird cult and moved to some town in north Florida a while ago?"
"Could Rowena be with them?"
"No way. They wasn't speaking to one another. I got that from your pops. Now mind you don't forget me when you goes out huntin' criminals. I still have my gun."
"I won't. Thanks, I appreciate it." I had been really pissed when Aunt Essie was kicked out of her home in Georgia and moved in with me in my apartment in Boston. She and her pot-bellied pig, Piggy Sue. I did all I could to keep her out of my business, but in the end I had to concede and let her come to Harland's office with me. She was downright dangerous when she waved her gun around, but it turned out her instincts about people helped me collar some crooks. When Mama was killed, she decided to stay in Quisby, and moved in with Pops.
I knew I had to find my cousin Rowena. At my mother's funeral she had told me she knew who had murdered Mama, and that they were still living in Quisby. Then she had left in a hurry, and now it seemed she had moved away from the area--far away--and if Aunt Essie didn't know where she was, I doubted anyone else would. Aunt Essie wasn't far removed from Connie when it came to keeping up with the gossip in town. I had even seen her actually hanging out with Connie sometimes.
I got onto the computer and did some creative searching. I wasn't able to locate any information about Rowena, so I emailed Gasser Cunha in Boston. It only took him a few minutes before he emailed me back. Rowena, he told me, was in Houston, Texas. He couldn't find a home address for her, but she worked at a Gentleman's Club and he got the address of that.
I thanked him, silently wondering why she wasn't a hair stylist any more, which is what she was training to be when she lived here. I tried to imagine her stripping or pole dancing, and baring her boobs and shaking her bare ass around, with all those sleazy men gawking at her. I wondered if she did lap dances too--or more. She had been having it off with M.J. at the time he died.
I thought it would be a good idea to speak with M.J.'s dad, so I got onto my bike and rode out to his place.
Mister Melvin Maynard was probably in his seventies and dirt poor. He lived way out in the boondocks in an old single-wide that had seen better days and needed some paint--or something--and the weeds around it needed to be cut down. He had a bald pate with a fringe of unkempt grey hair that hung in thin strands down to his shoulders. His tatty khaki pants and gray T-shirt had holes in them. He wore no shoes. He greeted me suspiciously, with a shotgun in his hands. I guessed that he wasn't in the habit of having visitors.
I got off my bike and made sure the kickstand was set, moving very slowly. When someone's pointing a shotgun at you, you become aware of every movement you make. Mister Melvin had known me, although not well, since I was a kid, so I don't think he saw me as any kind of a threat. He held onto the shotgun, though, and didn't invite me in.
"Mr. Melvin," I said, "You probably heard I started a private detective agency." In Boston, I probably would have stuck my hand out, but people didn't greet you with shotguns in their hands there.
He just stood there and stared at me.
"Well, I'm investigating M.J.'s murder." That got his attention. I saw a spark of life in his faded brown eyes. "Has anyone ever come up with anything that could explain who did it?"
"Velda did it. That bitch killed him." He hawked and spat into the dust. "He was gettin' it on with your whore cousin, Rowena, and Velda killed him in a jealous rage. I don't know why them asshole deputies never arrested her."
The gun waved around and I eyed his trigger finger, ready to drop if I saw it twitch. "Do you think you could put the gun down? I'm not threatening you in any way."
He stared at me with a fierce expression, and for a few seconds I though he was gonna shoot me. Finally his body language changed, he became less rigid, and he lowered the gun so it pointed at the ground a few feet in front of me.
"Velda swore she didn't do it. And they never found any evidence. So if Velda did kill M.J., she was pretty smart at covering her tracks."
He bobbed his head and I kept watching the gun. "Yeah. Smart bitch got away with it. And I lost most of my income. She knew M.J. helped me with my living expenses. She knows my Social Security payment's not enough to live on, but she's never given me a dime."
I wanted to rush him and rip the gun out of his hands, but I knew it wouldn't go down well. "Maybe you're right about her--but--do you remember anything different about M.J. before he died? I mean, the month before, a week before, the day before? Anything?"
He scratched his bald head. The gun hung in his right hand, pointing more at his feet than at me now. "The deputies asked me all this before and I told them a couple of weeks prior to his death, M.J. was acting kind of excited and he had said something about giving up his job and moving out of 'this Peyton Place'."
"That's good. Do you have any idea what he meant?" I knew he would say no. "Anything else you can remember? Think." I was thinking. Why had M.J. called Quisby a Peyton Place when he was the one guilty of having an affair? It didn't make much sense to me.
"It was a long time ago. That bitch killed my boy and that's the end of it." He turned and walked towards his house and I knew I would get nothing more from him.
I let out my breath. It felt like I had been too scared to breathe with that gun waving around in front of me.
On the way back, I saw a vehicle parked under a tree on the side of the road. As I got closer, I recognized it as a sheriff's department SUV. I pulled up beside his rolled down window.
"Been out asking about M.J.'s murder, I'm guessin'." Tibe Newton's voice was kind of high pitched and whiney, which was not what I would have expected from such a big man.
I stared at his elbow, which was resting half out the window. It was as thick as a tree trunk and had a generous growth of light colored hair on it. Tibe must have been all of six-four and probably weighed around two-eighty, and that was all muscle.
Tibe wasn't born and raised in Quisby, but had come here some time when I was in middle school. That would have been about fifteen years previously. Before he went to deputy school he had been a horse shoer. I can remember as a kid watching him at work, with his leather apron around his waist, and looking at those beefy arms and huge hands and thinking the horse had no chance if it wanted to pull its hoof away.