Wild Orchids Part 21

"Remind me never to ask you to do a portrait of me," I said.

Dessie was about to close the door when her cell phone rang. She grabbed it out of her belt holster so fast she reminded me of an Old West gunslinger.

When she looked at the caller ID, her face lit up, so I was sure it was Lawn Mower Man.

"Go on," I said, giving her permission to leave her guest alone.

After she was out of the room, I shut the cabinet door, but then I saw that below it was another cabinet door that was also locked. On a hunch, I reached behind the door frame where the other key had been hidden and, sure enough, another key was there.

I knew I was snooping, but I could no more have stopped myself than if I were an alcoholic locked overnight in a liquor store. Quickly, I inserted the key and opened the door.

Inside were two items. One was a small bronze of seven people standing in a line: five men and two women. These weren't caricatures; they were realistic. Three of the men were older, one of them quite old, while one was a kid who didn't look too smart. He looked like someone who if you said, "Let's go rob a bank," he'd say, "Sure, why not?"

The two women were both young, but one was as ugly as the other was beautiful. The women stood in the middle of the group, side by side, but not touching. It was easy to see that these two women were not friends.

And what was easier to see was that the ugly one was either a younger version of Miss Essie Lee or a close relative of hers.

When I heard Dessie laugh in the other room, I started to close the cabinet door. But there was another item in the cabinet with a cloth covering over it.

Maybe it was the writer in me that made me jump to conclusions, but I was sure the seven people in the bronze were the ones who put stones on that poor woman back in 1979. And my writer's mind was spinning with the thought that under that cloth was a casting of the woman who'd been crushed.

As I heard Dessie's returning footsteps, I yanked off the cover-only to reveal a little bronze of Rebecca. She was young and smiling, but it was indeed Rebecca.

Superman would have envied the speed with which I closed those cabinet doors and put the key back in its hiding place. When Dessie returned, I was placidly looking out the gla.s.s doors at the shattered tulips.

After her phone call, she got rid of me pretty quickly, so I guessed she and her jealous boyfriend were ready to finish making up. I was glad to go.

Maybe Jackie and I could still do something today, I thought.

But as I pulled out of Dessie's driveway, it began to rain and by the time I got home, it was a downpour. I can't describe my disappointment when I found the house was empty. Jackie's big camera bag was gone from the hall closet so I knew where she'd gone.

Without me, I thought. She went on a hike without me.

Or with someone? I thought, and that annoyed me even more. I called Nate's house and his grandmother told me Jackie had called and left a message, but that Jackie wasn't there. I called Allie, but Jackie wasn't there either.

I didn't know who else in Cole Creek to call, so I sat down to wait. When I got hungry, I started making spaghetti-which consisted of dumping a jar of sauce into a pan and turning on the gas.

The pasta was done and the rain was coming down hard, but, still, there was no Jackie. A couple of times the lights flickered in the house, so I got out candles and two flashlights, then made myself a small plate of spaghetti. I'd eat more when Jackie got back and we could eat together and tell each other about our day-as we usually did.

Finally, when it was nearly dark outside, I heard the front door open. I jumped up from the table and ran to the door. When I saw Jackie-and registered that she was safe and unhurt-I put on my best angry-father look and prepared to dump an ocean liner full of guilt on her. How dare she not let me know where she was? She could have been hurt or had a vision.

Obviously, I needed to know where she was at all times.

But Jackie never even looked at me. She was covered in her giant yellow poncho, her big pack on her back, just her face peeping out, and her eyes were... Well, if I were writing a bad novel, I would have said her eyes were "full of stars."

Whatever her eyes were full of, they certainly were blind. She looked straight ahead, without seeing me, and I'm certainly no small item easily missed. She went toward the stairs-dare I say "as though she were floating"

-then up the stairs to her room.

Standing at the bottom, I looked up in wonder. Jackie didn't usually "float." No, she ran and she jumped, and she had an unnatural inclination to climb on rocks and ladders, but she never, ever "floated."

I went up the stairs and stood outside her door for a few moments, contemplating knocking and telling her I'd cooked something. For a moment I allowed myself the pleasure of imagining Jackie's remarks about my cooking, and my ensuing witty replies. And for a few seconds I let myself remember my little fantasy about the black rings of olives on Jackie's pale skin.

I raised my hand to knock, but when I heard her humming and the bathwater running, I put my hand down and went back downstairs. I tried to watch TV, but I was restless and went into the library to search for something fabulous to read instead. Nothing interested me so I went upstairs to my office and turned on my computer.

I'm not sure why I did it, but I logged onto the Internet and went to a search service to see what I could find out about the people who had been alive in Cole Creek in 1979.

I typed in the names of anyone in Cole Creek I could think of, including Miss Essie Lee, and all the names of the seven founding families that I could remember.

What came up on the screen were obituaries-and what I saw shocked me. The head of the Cole family, Abraham, had died in 1980 in a freak accident. He'd been on the highway just outside Cole Creek and had a flat tire. A man driving a truck carrying a load of gravel had stopped to help the old man. But the mechanism that made the bed dump had malfunctioned and the entire load of gravel had dropped onto Abraham Cole and killed him.

I leaned back from the screen, trying to comprehend what I was seeing.

Abraham Cole had been crushed to death. By rocks.

Edward Belcher had also died in 1980, when a Wells Fargo truck went around a corner too fast. They had just picked up a load of gold and the weight, combined with the nervousness of the driver, had made him misjudge the angle of the curve. Edward had been waiting for the light to change, and the truck had toppled over on him.

In other words, he'd been crushed to death.

"By money," I said aloud. "As he lived."

I found an article describing the death of Harriet Cole Landreth in a car wreck. Before I read the newspaper account about what had happened, I made a little prediction, and, unfortunately, I was right. She'd been trapped under the weight of her automobile when it tumbled down the side of a mountain. The car wasn't found for two days so Harriet had had a long, slow, lingering death.

Getting up, I walked away from the computer. Revenge? I wondered.

Had some relative of the crushed woman taken revenge and seen to it that her murderers died as she had? But how had he done it? I wondered. How could a person arrange for a dump truck to discharge its load? A truck full of gold to tip over? A car to plunge down a mountain and not burn but to crush its pa.s.senger?

I went back to the computer and read the end of the article on Harriet Cole's car wreck. She was survived by her husband, her daughter, and her mother, who had been in the car with her. "Mrs. Abraham Cole is in the hospital in critical condition," it said.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled up Harriet Cole's obituary. She'd been only twenty-six years old when she'd died. There were four paragraphs about her family being one of the founders of Cole Creek, and it said that her father had predeceased her. Her mother's name was Mary Hattalene Cole, but there was nothing about her condition at the time of her daughter's funeral.

Harriet's husband was listed as Reece Landreth, and her daughter was- When I saw the name I drew in my breath. Jacquelane Amarisa Cole Landreth. JacqueLANE. As in Harriet Lane, the president's lovely niece.

Leaving my office in a rush, I went down the stairs so fast I nearly slid.

Jackie's bedroom door was still closed, so I tiptoed down to the entrance hall. There on the little table by the door was Jackie's handbag. Every man on earth knows that the ultimate taboo is looking inside a woman's handbag. It ranked right up there with cannibalism. A woman might have her purse stolen, but everyone knew that only a real sicko would actually go through it.

I had to take a couple of breaths before I slid the zipper open. As much as Pat and I had shared, I'd never gone through her handbag.

Considering what I was doing, I used as much courtesy as I could muster and pulled her wallet out with just my thumb and forefinger. I told myself I wasn't really snooping. I only wanted one thing: her driver's license.

It was on top, in the little see-through compartment of her wallet. I held it up to the light and looked. Jackie's whole name was Jacquelane Violet Maxwell. JacqueLANE. As in Harriet Lane, the woman her father had a crush on. And Violet was, no doubt, for Miss Lane's violet eyes.

I sat down hard on the chair by the hall table. Congratulations, Newcombe, I told myself. You just found out what you didn't want to know. The woman you hired was almost certainly an eyewitness to a murder. And worse, she probably saw her own mother, as well as her grandfather, commit that murder.

I sat there for a long time, holding Jackie's driver's license, glancing at it now and then, and trying to think about what I may have done. My snooping may have put someone's life in danger. Jackie may have been very young when she saw the murder, but it was obvious that she could remember a lot from the time she was in Cole Creek.

She remembered every inch of the old house I'd bought. Two days ago I'd found her tapping on a wall in the kitchen. I didn't bother to ask what she was doing, but stood in the doorway and watched. After a moment, her tap sounded hollow and she said, "Found it!" She often knew where I was, so I wasn't surprised when she turned and looked at me.

"I went to put the olive oil on the shelf but the shelf wasn't there," she said as she picked up one of the knives I'd bought. It had a serrated blade and the ad said it could cut aluminum cans in half. (It could, too, because Tessa and I had cut through six cans before Jackie made us stop.) I watched as Jackie felt along the old wallpaper, then began to cut. After about ten minutes of feeling and cutting, she peeled down a big square of wallpaper to reveal a mouse palace. Insulation (probably illegal asbestos), dirt, globbed-up paper, threads, lint, and hair of what looked to be four shades, were all matted together with many years of mouse pee and millions of little black droppings.

Behind the nest were boards so greasy they made my uncle Reg's car repair shop look clean. That's why the shelves were covered over. If it'd been me, and I'd been given a choice between cleaning those shelves and wallpapering over them, I would have definitely wallpapered.

"A good place for food storage," I said.

Turning to me, Jackie made a wicked face while rubbing her hands together. "Mr. Hoover will now do his work," she said as she ran to get the vacuum.

By the time I came down to lunch, the shelves were clean and shiny, and the kitchen smelled like the bleach Jackie had used to clean them.

I didn't bother to ask Jackie how she'd known the shelves were there.

And she seemed to take her knowledge for granted. As she dished up some kind of shrimp thing and four steamed vegetables, she ranted on and on about what kind of lazy idiot would board up a closet rather than remove a beehive, and who would cover over shelves just because they had about a hundred years of grease on them.

I put my head closer to my plate.

So, anyway, I knew that Jackie's memories of the time she was in Cole Creek, no matter what her age, were clear. I doubt if any court would convict people for murder based on what Jackie remembered, but then I'd never thought that murderers were logical people who would stop to reason out what they were going to do.

On the other hand, based on what I'd seen on the Internet, everyone who had been involved-or who I thought was probably involved-seemed to have died soon after the woman did.

I put Jackie's license back in her wallet and her wallet back in her handbag just where I'd found it, then zipped her bag closed and went back upstairs.

The search service had found one more name. Miss Essie Lee was the sister of, and the sole surviving relative of, Icie Lee Shaver who had died in yet another "freak" accident. Seems Icie Lee had been walking in the woods and fallen into an old well. She'd been buried to her neck, but the rotten timbers of the old well had held enough that she'd been able to breathe.

Eventually, after a day or two, her struggles to free herself had caused the walls to collapse on her.

"Crushed," I said aloud. As they had all murdered, so they had died.

I shut down my computer and went to bed, but I didn't sleep much. The images from the words that had come up on my computer screen haunted me. The words "as they lived" kept running through my head.

At three A.M. I gave up trying to sleep, put my hands behind my head, and stared up at the fan on the ceiling. It was going full speed and I stared at the little wooden end of the chain as though it were a hypnotist's sphere.

As the first ray of sun came in through my window, I thought that if I wanted to know who had crushed that woman, I should read all the obituaries for the year after her death. Based on what I'd found so far, whoever had died by being crushed had probably partic.i.p.ated.

When I had things sorted out a bit in my mind, I began to relax and finally fell asleep. I didn't wake up until noon. When I saw the clock, I felt a sense of panic. Where was Jackie? She was so industrious that I could always hear where she was, but the house was absolutely silent.

I found Jackie sitting at the kitchen table playing with one of the neatest gadgets I'd ever seen in my life. It was a tiny Hewlett-Packard color printer, and beside it was a little camera with a door open on its side.

I'm ashamed to say that, as I sat down at the table and watched that little machine make a perfect print, I forgot all about who got crushed and why.

When I started playing with the two pieces of equipment, Jackie didn't say a word, just got up from the table and began scrambling eggs.

The printer was very simple to use, and by the time Jackie put the eggs in front of me, I'd made two 4x6 enlargements. One was of roses on a fence, and the other was a photo of a red and white tablecloth, a wine bottle, and half a loaf of bread.

"This what you did yesterday?" I asked, smiling. A picnic by herself?

But my question seemed to disturb Jackie because she s.n.a.t.c.hed the little disk out of the printer, stuck it back in the camera, pushed some b.u.t.tons, then put the camera back on the table. I knew without a doubt that she'd just erased the two photos of the picnic. As for the photos I'd printed, she burned them in the flame on the stove.

Of course I was dying to ask questions, but I didn't. Besides, Jackie gave me a look that said that if I asked anything, she'd make me sorry.

That was okay; I had my own secrets. I never even considered telling Jackie what I'd found out on the Internet. I also wasn't going to tell her that Harriet Cole's daughter had the same unique spelling of her name that Jackie did.

For the next two days, all I can say about Jackie's behavior is that it was odd. She didn't act like herself. Not that I'd spent ma.s.ses of time with her, but after the Sunday I spent with Dessie, Jackie seemed to change. It was as though her mind was elsewhere. She cooked three meals a day for me, and she answered the telephone, and she even told Nate what to do in the garden, but there was something different. For one thing, she was quiet:, hardly ever saying a word. And for another, she wasn't moving around much. Three times I looked out my office window and saw her just standing there, staring into s.p.a.ce. It was like seeing a hummingbird with its wings still, motionless.

Of course I asked her what was wrong, but she just looked off into the distance and said, "Mmmm."

I tried to get a reaction out of her. I told her Dessie and I'd had a fabulous time together on Sunday. No comment from Jackie. I told her Dessie and I'd had great s.e.x together. "Mmmm," was all Jackie said as she kept staring into s.p.a.ce. I told her I was running away with Dessie to Mexico and we were taking Tessa with us. No comment. I told Jackie I was in love with a green-eyed grizzly bear and she was heavy with my child. Jackie said, "That's nice," then wandered outside.

On Wednesday, she took some snapshots of Nate with that new camera of hers-I didn't say so but I was a little hurt that she'd bought that and the tiny printer without letting me help choose them. When we saw the photos, Nate looked like something out of a fashion magazine. And that was without a bath.

When I tried to talk to him about the possibility of a future in the fashion world, he wouldn't consider it. I understood. What self-respecting male wanted a job being photographed? On the other hand, the money could be very good. I wanted Jackie to talk to him, but she stood at the far end of the garden and wouldn't get involved.

On Thursday morning the FedEx package from the man in Charlotte finally arrived. Part of me wanted to open it and part of me wanted to burn it instead.

I'd had a couple of days to think about the situation now. I'd decided that some very angry people had piled rocks on a woman back in 1979, and that Jackie, as a child, had seen it all. After the murder, I think someone played vigilante and somehow, one by one, killed all the people who had committed the murder.

If my theory was correct, then Jackie was in no danger. And as far as I could tell, she knew nothing about the later vendetta killings. She knew only about the crushing.

Jackie also knew the reason her mother, who was probably one of the murderers, gave to justify killing the woman. She'd said that people who loved the devil had to die.

The devil made me do it, I thought. Isn't that the reason that's been given for so many murders over the centuries? "It wasn't my fault," I heard people on news programs say. "The devil controlled my mind." When I first met Jackie she'd told me that the townspeople believed a woman had been in love with the devil.

I put my hand over my eyes. If Jackie was safe, then we could stay. But if we stayed, I knew myself well enough to know that I'd dig until I found out the truth about why that woman had been killed. What human emotion had driven them to murder? And I deeply wanted to know who had avenged her death.

With shaking hands, I opened the FedEx package. The top page was a letter of apology. The man had been ill so he was late in sending the material, but he hoped I'd still send the autographed books. That's one for him, I thought. I hadn't been ill, I'd just forgotten to send the books.

The photograph of the remade skeleton was what I wanted to see, and it was at the bottom of the stack. When I pulled it out, I saw the face of a pretty woman, probably late thirties, and I had no doubt she was a relative of Jackie's. When Jackie was the same age, she was going to look a lot like this woman.

As I stood there looking at the picture, I tried to figure out who she was- other than the woman on the bridge, that is. She wasn't Jackie's mother because I was pretty sure her mom had been crushed by a car.

I flipped through the papers the man had sent me. "Unknown" was everywhere. She was an unknown woman and it was unknown whether her death was an accident or a murder. The police might have been able to figure it out by the way the stones were on top of her, but by the time the police had arrived, the kids who'd found the body had removed them all. It seems the girl who'd "heard" the crying during the night had been screaming hysterically that they needed to "let the poor woman out," so all the stones had been taken off the skeleton.

The police had interviewed the kids and each of them had been positive about the way the stones had been arranged. But half had been positive one way, and the other half were sure of another way. In the end, the evidence had been "inconclusive."

I looked at the names of the kids and wondered what I'd find out if I put them through a search service. Even as I was telling myself I shouldn't do such a thing, I turned toward the stairs to go up to my office.

But I was stopped when Tessa threw open the front door, and, running full speed, leaped up on me, her legs around my waist, her arms tight around my neck.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, kissing me all over my face.

I had no idea what she meant but it was nice. She wasn't old enough to have developed pretenses, so whatever she was feeling came out honestly and openly.

"What?" I asked, smiling. The whole packet about the murdered woman had been knocked out of my hands and was now spread on the floor under my feet. I wanted to leave it there and hoped it fell through the cracks.

I pulled Tessa's arms from around my neck so I could breathe. "Thanks for what?"

"The gnome."

I didn't know what she was talking about. When we'd bought the garden statues, we'd spent quite a bit of time debating about gnomes, but I was pretty much against them. When I was in the first grade, Johnnie Foster and I'd had a fight when he'd said I looked like a gnome. I'd never heard the word before so I asked the school librarian and she'd handed me a book. I didn't like what I saw.

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