“There’s a naked woman in the garden,” Jack said.
“Ung?” I mumbled, which was about as coherent as I got at seven in the morning. I glanced out the diamond-paned kitchen window. Yep. Naked woman standing on the grass. I didn’t recognize her. I groped my way to the counter and hit the button on the coffeemaker, glad I remembered to load it up the night before. The programmable timer hadn’t worked for months, and the less time I spent in that no-man’s land between getting out of bed and sucking down my first cup, the better.
“Don’t you think that’s a bit odd?” Jack insisted.
Happily, I was not slugging back my first caffeine fix of the day, or I would have snorted coffee. Odd? When was anything in my life not odd? I lolled over the counter as the first drop of water hit the grounds and the truly wonderful aroma of coffee laced with caramel permeated the air.
“A naked wet woman in the garden. Dripping wet,” he emphasized.
I sighed and turned to lean my spine on the counter. I would rather she were an escaped lunatic who wandered into the neighborhood than what she really was. Although how she could be wet on a chilly November morning was anyone’s guess.
“I’ve been watching her from the bedroom window,” Mel said, coming through the door from the hallway, mussing up her permanently mussed red hair with one hand. “She’s been standing there, wet, for half an hour.”
Not a disoriented stranger in the wrong backyard. Not an escaped loony. Worse. One of them. I sighed again. I did not want to deal with her this early in the morning. “She’ll have to wait till after I have my coffee.”
I didn’t want to deal with her, period. I’d just signed off on an unpleasant case and looked forward to a break. Warren Bigger of Ogden reported his wife missing. She went to visit a girlfriend and never came back. He called the friend, but she said she didn’t see Monica and did not arrange to meet her. Twenty-four hours later, Warren and the boys were frantic and he called the police. Search parties were organized and leads investigated. Warren stood outside his house, looking solemn, his sons at his side as he spoke to reporters. One of the boys couldn’t take it and shook with tears. Sympathy poured in from the community. And I had to go stomp on everyone’s good intentions and commiseration by finding Monica’s body and fingering Warren as her killer.
I almost gave up after I questioned every dead person in Ogden – and there are a lot of them – and got nowhere. But I methodically went from one to another leading away from the city. Then I talked to Sheila. She saw Warren and Monica take the onramp and head toward Brigham on Interstate 15, the same morning Monica was supposed to be with her girlfriend and the boys were in school. Philip saw them turn off Highway 13 west of Corinne. Finding Monica in the desert took me less than an hour; she was the only woman standing on flat terrain with her hands and ankles tied and a flour sack on her head, right over where her body lay. She told me who killed her. DNA evidence did the rest.
So now the Bigger twins were in foster care, the last place I wanted any kid to be, but would soon be given into the custody of their maternal grandparents, which eased Monica’s anguish. Their dad was in the state penitentiary. Hopefully, he would end his days there and Monica could go on to where the shades of the dead go.
I wanted to sit out the morning in the silence of my kitchen, drink strong coffee, maybe clean out my old pink refrigerator, and make a pan of Louisiana bread pudding with whiskey sauce.
No such luck.
Jack sniffed condescendingly, went back to the kitchen table and stooped over the newspaper I picked up on the way home last night, his long brown hair flopping over his brow into his eyes. Mel stood at his shoulder.
Jack’s hair permanently flops in startled pale-blue eyes. Mel’s hair is always mussed up, as if she just got out of bed, or battled a strong wind. She rakes at it, or tries to smooth it down, but it never changes. Mel’s freckled face wears the same apprehensive expression as Jack’s does.
I opened the newspaper, then turned back to the counter to fill my mug with precious liquid. I got liquid creamer from the refrigerator, added a good dollop to the coffee, and took my mug to the window. I watched the woman as I sipped. This was kind of strange, or I should say stranger than normal. They always remained at their place of departure and this one sure did not depart from my backyard, unless I missed some bizarre event during the night. And why dripping wet? It indicated drowning, but she couldn’t have drowned out there.
She looked right at me.
“Ahem!” from Jack.
I stepped to the table, flipped to the next page for him and took a seat, then nursed my mug in both hands. “So what’s new with the world?”
“Unfortunately, our provincial little paper doesn’t often mention the world,” Jack said with a sneer in his voice. “However, you might be interested to know there was a death in the apartments.”
“The apartments? You mean. . . ?” I jogged my head.
“Yes. Those apartments. The ones behind us.”
“Coralinda Marchant,” Mel added helpfully as she peered near-sightedly at the newspaper. “Found dead in her bathtub.”
I twisted to look through the window at the tall, dark-haired, wet woman in my backyard. I took another sip of coffee. “What a coincidence.”
Now I really did not want to go outside. “Do they know who killed her?”
“No mention of murder. The police are in their no-comment mode,” Jack informed me.
“Then they’re stalling. She was murdered.”
“Cops? Useless!” Jack opined too vehemently. I internally winced, recognizing a lead-in to one of his totally unfunny jokes. They always involve dead people in some way.
“Did you hear the one about the Irish cop? A newcomer said he’d heard about a lot of criminal activity in the area, but it seemed like a quiet little place to him. So the cop tells him, ‘Ah, to be sure, we haven’t buried a living soul in years.’”
This had to be his fifth rendition of the same, stale old joke.
Mel wrapped her arms over her stomach and deadpanned, “Oh, Lord! she says, clutching her stomach and rolling on the ground with unrestrained mirth.”
“You’ve heard it before,” Jack stated.
“Why would you think that?”
Tsking, I put my mug on the table and pulled the paper to my side. Coralinda Marchant: single, thirty-two, lived alone, worked as a secretary at a storage facility on West Canal. A neighbor found her when he saw her apartment door wide open and couldn’t resist a snoop; two days ago, on November 17th. They estimated her death as the evening of November 16th.
I pushed the paper back to Jack, turned to the next page for him and tucked my feet up on the rungs of the chair, wishing I put slippers on over my socks. The sun would soon rise above the peaks and flood the kitchen with light and warmth, but until then the inadequate heating left it cool, and the floor felt icy. The radiant heating in my house is old. It is also noisy, popping and crackling at odd hours of the day and night. One day, when I strike it rich – ha ha – I will replace the heating system. Until then, a cold day in mid-November tends to worm its way inside.
A redbrick cottage built in the post-World War II era, my house is small and well built, boasting the original wooden floors and window frames. My favorite rooms, the kitchen and bathroom, are large, and in winter the warmest rooms in the house, the bathroom big enough for my treadmill and TV to fit in with room to spare. I can jog for hours and watch my favorite shows at the same time.
I have to keep in shape. At six-foot-four and slim, my muscle will go to fat if I don’t take care of my body, then I’ll look like a great lump. I used to be fanatical about exercise, but when my special little talent reared its ugly head, for a while there I lost interest in just about everything except hiding away from the outside world. Seeing the sorry – okay, flabby – shape I was in, helped pull me out of it.
I drained my mug, leaned over it so I could see out the window. She was still here, but now she wandered in tight little circles.
It did not make sense. Why – more importantly, how – did dead Coralinda Marchant end up in my yard?
On a half-acre of land at the end of a cul-de-sac, the house butts right up to the curb, with a narrow strip of grass either side and in front where Beeches Street begins a winding descent to Clarion. The woman stood in the middle of the strip on the north side of the house, hands hanging loose at her sides, waiting.
I walked beside the house, my shoes leaving tracks in a thin coat of frost. Hesitating at the corner, I braced for a vision. I don’t always see a shade’s death, but when I do it literally flashes on the insides of my eyelids like a flickering movie. Even though I know I watch the last moments of a person’s life, I think I could learn to live with it as there is a kind of detachment, if not for the accompanying emotion. I feel what they feel and I will never become accustomed to that.
I see what they see. Except for when they are taken from behind, I see the face of their killer.
But nothing came. That’s always a relief, but can make discovering what happened to a shade harder, because they are not always sure themselves.
One of the first things I learned about talking with the dead is you do not offer them information. You do not put words in their mouths. If they are confused and you say, “Can you get a message to my Aunt Bertha?” they are just as likely to say they can, because they want to please you. They figure if they please you, you will talk to them again.
So I walked up to the woman I presumed to be Coralinda Marchant and stopped in front of her with one eyebrow hiked like a question mark. The early morning chill bit at my exposed face and hands. I wrapped my arms around myself to stifle a shiver.
I wasn’t sure, but I thought tears mingled with the water on her face.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
I once asked a spirit why he whispered to me, why they all did. He said he didn’t whisper, he spoke in a perfectly normal voice. To me, they seem to whisper.
Her voice was rather high, the sort which could become piercing if she were excited and talking a mile a minute. Dark-brown hair clung to a pointed face and almost down to the waist of a tall, slim, lanky body with small breasts and narrow hips. Thick brown lashes framed huge blue eyes. Not beautiful, but attractive enough to turn a man’s head as she walked past him. Just my opinion. The water on her fascinated me; her entire body, every strand of her hair, each individual eyelash. I expected it to drip off, but it coated her like a sheath.
“I’m Lindy Marchant. I live . . . lived on the third floor,” she went on, flicking one hand back over her shoulder to indicate the apartment complex behind her.
At least she knew she was dead. Sometimes they don’t.
“I’ve seen you walking the neighborhood and thought I recognized you. I saw your picture in a newspaper when I lived in New Jersey, when you helped the police with the Telford murder. It said you’re a psychic detective. I thought, how neat, a psychic, and she lives near me.”
Ah, the Telford case, my little piece of notoriety. It involved a meat packer named- wait for it – Mark Butcher, a 1965 Mustang Shelby Fastback, a panicked seventeen-year-old and a clever, panicked father who did not want his boy in the hands of evil law enforcement; a smart county sheriff who stewed over the case for six months before making a call to his old friend Mike Warren, and little old me.
When I work with other PDs, like Clarion they try to keep me under the radar, but a resident of tiny Telford, New Jersey, thought she knew what I did for the police. She told her brother, the editor-cum-reporter-cum-everything else of the Telford Times. He got a picture of me and wrote a story. I’m glad the national newspapers didn’t pick it up.
So Lindy lived in New Jersey and just happened to read the article. People like to debate fate and coincidence. I don’t believe in fate, and coincidence can be a huge pain in the butt as far as I’m concerned.
“One, I’m not a detective. Two, I’m not a psychic. I don’t disagree when people call me that because they’d have a harder time with me if they knew what I really do. I see the departed. I can talk to them,” I told Lindy.
“So you’re a medium?”
“Not really. Mediums can sense a presence and if they’re luck communicate with it, but I see you as a flesh and blood person. Mediums don’t have person-to-person conversations with the departed as we’re having.”
“Oh.” Her gaze drifted from me for a moment. She looked lost, then distraught, as her hands came up to catch hanks of her long hair and pull them. “Then you can’t help me.”
But damn me, I was going to try. I couldn’t cope with a nude spirit camped out in my backyard. “I might be able to, if you tell me what you need.”
She crossed her wrists, wrapping the ends of her hair around her throat. “My little boy . . . I have to know what happened to Lawrence.”
I frowned. The paper did not mention a child. But there could be a reason, something the police were not sharing with the public.
“He didn’t leave with the police officers?”
She shook her head wildly. “No! He wasn’t in the apartment. I couldn’t feel him.”
“I always felt him there. It was a little harder when he played outside. I had to stretch my senses farther.”
“You mean you sense his physical presence?”
“Of course. Can’t all parents?”
Not that I knew of. I had vague memories of my foster parents yelling through my bedroom door, “Tiffany, you stop right this minute,” and not understanding how they knew what I was doing when they couldn’t see me. Later in life, I learned it’s intuition possessed by most parents, not an uncanny talent. Lindy meant something other than intuition.
Okay, skip it. Not important right now.
“Lawrence? He would be Lawrence. . . ?” The paper said she was single, but he could have his father’s name.
“Okay. Do you have family or friends he could have gone to?”
She shook her head. “No. Nobody. We were all alone.”
“Then he’s probably in the state’s care.” I tried to give her a reassuring smile. “They’ll make sure he has a good home.”
I almost choked on the words. I was in and out of their shelters and went through five foster-families, till my latest foster-father made life impossible. I should have gone to my caseworker, but I just wanted out of there, fast. There are a lot of good people at Child and Family Services, but it’s a state bureaucracy; too many regulations and massive caseloads can wear down most well-intentioned people. I figure I did them a favor by cutting through the red tape and leaving Utah.
“Do you think so? Perhaps they took him before I woke. Can you find out?”
I halfheartedly nodded. “If it’s what you need, to know where he is, it shouldn’t be hard.”
Then I had to ask. “Lindy, what happened to you?”
She let her hair loose and wrung her hands together.
Until I became accustomed to it, seeing the faces of the dead was an alarming experience, because they are stuck with the expression they wore when they died. Lindy went through the physical motions of pulling on her hair and wringing her hands, as if distressed, but her expression didn’t alter.
“I was taking a bath and I know I locked the front and back doors. A man came in the bathroom and went behind me. I couldn’t even scream. I wanted to, but I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I gripped the sides of the tub and tried to haul myself up, and he touched me on the forehead. I barely felt it. But then it was like a . . . a jolt through my body. It took my breath away. I went under the water, just for a second, came back up and I still couldn’t breathe. That’s all I remember till I woke again.”
I stepped closer. “What do you recall next?”
Her eyes slid away as she concentrated on a memory which could already be fading. “People there. Police. In the bathroom.” Her gaze darted back to me and her tone turned indignant. “It was so embarrassing! One of the officers picked up my thong and said he wondered if his girlfriend would like one. The detective said he’d get one for his wife, but it would cut off her circulation¾not that it would matter because her crotch atrophied years ago. I was stark naked in my bathtub and they joked about my underwear! And then the other officer said he’d heard on good authority if you – ”
I cut in. I didn’t need that much information. I kept my voice and expression neutral, although I wanted to grin at the mental picture her words evoked. “Making jokes at a crime scene is a coping mechanism. A kind of barrier they put between them and the reality of what they see and have to deal with. Your underwear was an excuse, a distraction if you like.”
She stared at the ground and I hoped she hadn’t lost her train of thought. But she continued: “I tried to cover myself with my hands as I got out the tub. I yelled at them, but they took no notice, as if they didn’t hear me. I tried to wrap a towel around but I couldn’t seem to pick it up. I was . . . I froze. I couldn’t understand what was happening. And then. . . .”
She brought her hands up to cover her eyes.
After talking to so many dead people, you would think I’d become hardened to it, but although I learned to keep my feelings to myself, their sad stories still get to me. After a while they come to terms with what happened to them, and become resigned – although I did meet a couple with a serious case of self-denial. But people like Lindy who have only just passed over – I feel so damned awful for them, for what they go through, not only losing their lives, but the frustration, disbelief and fear they experience as they come to realize they are no longer among the living.
She dropped her hands and looked me in the eyes. “They were talking about the dead woman in the tub and I realized they meant me.
“They left after a while, taking me with them. I mean . . . I watched them take my body, but I was still there! Then I was all alone. And then I remembered you. So I came to see you.”
“How did you manage that, Lindy?”
“I walked here. It isn’t far. Although it did seem to take a real long time.”
Two days. She took two days to reach me.
I didn’t explain how her leaving the apartment was, as far as I knew, an oddity. “I’ll see what I can do. But it could take time and I can’t have you waiting in my yard.”
“I won’t be a bother,” she said quickly.
I had to be blunt. “Well, you are a bother when every time I look out the window I see you staring in.”
She glanced at the yard. “I don’t want to go back to the apartment. Can I stay here if I keep out of your way? If I keep out of sight?”
I closed my eyes and puffed out a quick breath. I didn’t want her here, but I couldn’t make her leave if she didn’t want to. Compromise would work better.
The rest of the lot stretches out behind the house. I have an honest-to-god orchard back there with a pear, a couple of plums, a Bing cherry and four apple trees. Grapevines smother the back wall. The harvest is nothing special as the high altitude means a short growing season, but my neighbors are glad to come in and pick their own, and in return I get a few jams, jellies and relishes. Hoping Lindy could follow, I walked toward the orchard. “Why don’t you hang out with the apple trees for now? But when I find your son, I want you gone from here, Lindy. That’s the deal.”
She came after me. “But where will I – ”
“I don’t know,” I cut in. “But not here.”
I’m not unsympathetic, far from it, but there have to be boundaries between the living and the dead. Their place of departure is typically their boundary, but in Lindy’s case, with her ability to move about, I had to outline those boundaries for her. My backyard would not to be the place she lingered till she passed over.
“By the way,” I added as she wandered toward the fruit trees, “the man in your apartment, what did he look like?”
She half-turned back. “I don’t remember very well. He moved so fast, he was a blur. I think he had long yellow hair. Oh, and his eyes seemed to glint. I don’t mean how a person’s eyes can gleam in lamplight, they . . . oh, I don’t know. They just looked strange.”
I headed for the backdoor leading to the kitchen, acorns from the scrub oak crunching underfoot. I made a face – another oddity. The one thing the dead never forget is the face of their killer.
I poured more coffee. “It’s her all right.”
“A man was in her apartment. I think he killed her, but I don’t know how. She doesn’t know herself. All she’s interested in is her little boy.” I frowned at Jack, wondering if I skipped over some of the newspaper article. “The paper didn’t mention a child, did it?”
“If it had, I would have told you.”
I got up from the table. “I’m gonna talk to Mike.”
Jack went to the window in the backdoor, from where he could see Lindy. “She’s a looker. Wouldn’t mind wrapping myself around that.”
“Now that I’d like to see,” said Mel.
“Yeah, Jack,” I chimed in as I headed for the stairs. “And why don’t you pass me the newspaper while you’re at it.”
I gave Mel a conspiratorial look – we girls have to stick together. Jack glared at both of us. “I suppose you think you’re funny.”
“Well . . . yeah.”
Dead people. They slay me.