Authors: Charlaine Harris
Detective Lacey looked puzzled.
“The Morgensterns. How long a drive is it, Nashville to Memphis?” I said.
He gave us an unreadable look. “Like you didn't know.”
Okay, I wasn't getting this at all. “Knowâ¦?” I looked at Tolliver. He shrugged, as bewildered as I was. A possibility occurred to me. “Tell me they're not dead!” I said. I'd liked them, and I didn't often have feelings for clients.
It was Lacey's turn to look uncertain. “You really don't know?”
“We don't understand what you're talking about,” Tolliver said. “Just tell us.”
“The Morgensterns left Nashville about a year after the little girl was abducted,” Lacey said. He ran a hand over his thinning blond hair. “They live here in Memphis now. He manages the Memphis branch of the same accounting firm, and his wife's pregnant again. Maybe you didn't know that he and his first wife were both from Memphis, and since Diane Morgenstern's family lives overseas, back here was where they needed to be if they wanted the support of family during the pregnancy and birth.”
I suspected my mouth was hanging open, but for the moment I didn't care. I had so many thoughts I couldn't
process them all at once. The Morgensterns being here turned everything upside down. If I'd thought we were placed in a bad situation, ours was nothing compared to theirs. It looked so bad for them, Tabitha's body being found here. And their presence here in Memphis made the fact that I'd been the one to finally find her even fishier, since they'd employed me before.
I simply couldn't think of any explanation that cleared the couple of some involvement in their daughter's death.
My stunned reaction struck true to the detective, and Tolliver's was even more obvious. Lacey nodded sharply, as if he were reluctantly convinced of something.
After that, there weren't any more questions. We were released to go back to our motel, an absolutely typical airport motel in a medium-range chain that we'd picked because it was right off the interstate and not too far from the college. On our way back, we'd gone through a Wendy's drive-through to pick up sandwiches, and before we went up to our room we each pulled a soft drink from the ice chest in the back seat. Our room was wonderfully quiet and warm. I gulped my soda down right away, because I needed the sugar after our experience in the cemetery. (We've found, by trial and error, that sugar really helps get me up and running after a job.) Sure enough, after the sugar hit me, I was able to eat my sandwich at a calm pace. I felt much better. After we'd cleared away the debris, Tolliver stood and looked down from our second-story window.
“There are reporters already gathering,” Tolliver said, after
a minute. “It's only a matter of time before they come up to the room and knock on the door.”
I should have thought of that already. “This will generate a lot of publicity,” I said, and the ambivalence was clear in Tolliver's face, as I'm sure it was in mine.
“You think we need to call Art?” Art Barfield was our attorney, and his firm was based in Atlanta.
“That might be a good idea,” I said. “Would you talk to him?”
“Sure.” Tolliver pulled out his cell phone and dialed, while I went to the sink to wash my face. After I turned off the water, I could hear him talking. I was combing my hair in the mirrorâmy hair was almost as dark as Tolliver'sâwhen he hung up.
“His secretary says he's with a client, but he'll call soonest possible. Of course, he'll charge an arm and a leg if we ask him to come. That is, if he can get away.”
“He'll come, or he'll recommend someone local. We've only asked him once before, and we're his mostâ¦lurid clients,” I said practically. “If he doesn't come, we'll be swamped.”
Art called us back about an hour later. From Tolliver's end of the conversation, you could tell Art was not too excited about the prospect of leaving homeâArt was not young, and he liked his home comfortsâbut when Tolliver told Art about the reporters gathered at the police station, the lawyer allowed himself to be persuaded to get on a plane right away.
“Corinne'll call you with my plane information,” Art
said to Tolliver, but I could hear him clearly. Art has one of those carrying voices, which is really useful if you're a trial lawyer.
Art likes publicity almost as much as he loves his remote control and his wife's cooking. He's had a taste of it since he became our lawyer, and his practice has increased exponentially. His secretary, the middle-aged Corinne, called us within minutes to give us Art's flight number and his ETA.
“I don't think we'd better meet Art at the airport,” I told Corinne. I watched another news van enter the parking lot. “I think we're going to have to go to a hotel, one with more security than this.”
“You'd better make the change now, and I'll book Mr. Barfield a room at the same place,” Corinne said practically. “I'll call him on his cell when he lands. In fact, I'll make a phone call or two, find the right place, and book the reservation for all of you. One room or two, for you and Mr. Lang?”
The hotel was sure to be very expensive. Normally I'd be inclined to share one room with Tolliver, as we were doing now. But if the newspapers were checking, better to err on the side of the Goddess of Rightness.
“Two,” I said. “Adjacent. Or if we can get a suite, that would be good.”
“I'll do some quick research, and then I'll confirm with you,” the efficient Corinne said.
She called back to tell us we were booked into the Cleveland. It was, as I'd feared, way too expensive for my taste, but I'd pay the money to ensure the privacy. I didn't like being
on television. Publicity was good for business, but only the right kind of publicity.
We left our motel, as disguised as we could be without looking ludicrous. Before strolling out one of the side doors and making a beeline to our car, we had bundled to the teeth. Because we looked so humble, Tolliver lugging the ice chest and me carrying our overnight bags, we managed to escape the attention of the news crew until we were pulling out of the parking lot. The newswoman, whose lips were so shiny they looked polyurethaned, made a flying leap to land right beside the driver's window. Tolliver couldn't see to turn left into the traffic flowing the way we needed to go, so we were more or less trapped. He rolled down the window and put on an agreeable smile.
“Shellie Quail from Channel Thirteen,” the shiny woman said. She was the color of hot chocolate, and her black hair gleamed like it had been polished. It was in a smooth helmet style. Shellie Quail's makeup was equally warlike, lots of bright colors and definite lines. I wondered how long it took her to get ready to leave her house in the morning. She was wearing a tight pantsuit in a brownish, tweedy material, flecked with orange. The little flecks made her skin glow. “Mr. Lang, are you Miss Connelly's manager? Have I got that right?” the shining woman said.
“Yes, you do,” Tolliver said agreeably. I knew the camera was rolling. But I had faith in my brother. He has a lot of charm when the occasion arises, especially if it arises in the presence of a pretty woman.
“Can you comment on this morning's happenings in the old St. Margaret's cemetery at Bingham College?” she asked. The microphone she'd been clutching was thrust at Tolliver's chin in what I considered a very aggressive way.
“Yes,” he said. “We're waiting to hear if the body we discovered can be identified.” I admired the way he kept his voice so level and calmâbut serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.
“Is it true the police are considering the possibility that the skeleton may be that of Tabitha Morgenstern?”
Well, that hadn't taken long to leak out.
“Our thoughts and our prayers are with the Morgenstern family. Of course, like everyone else here, we're very anxious to hear some news,” Tolliver said neutrally.
“Mr. Lang, is it true your sister stated that the body just exhumed from the cemetery is
that of the missing girl?”
We weren't going to get by with anything. “We believe that to be true,” he said, indirectly.
“How do you explain the coincidence?”
“What coincidence?” Tolliver asked, which I thought was maybe a little over the top.
Even Shellie Quail looked disconcerted. But she got back on her roll. “That your sister was hired to look for Tabitha Morgenstern months ago in Nashville, and then hired to look at the graves in the old St. Margaret's cemetery here in Memphis. And that a body reported to be that of Tabitha Morgenstern is found in that cemetery.”
“We have no idea how this came about, and we're looking forward to hearing the explanation,” Tolliver said sternly, as if we'd been mightily put-upon. Baffled, Shellie Quail paused to think of another question, and we took the opportunity to make our left turn.
Cleveland was beautiful. The Cleveland was discreet. I was not going to want to see our credit card bill when it came next month.
A valet took our car, and we rolled into the lobby in a flurry of baggage and desperation, anxious to get away from the reporters who'd actually followed us to the new hotel. The staff was as courteous as if we'd stayed at the Cleveland four times a year. We were upstairs and out of reach of anyone in the twinkling of an eye. I was so glad to have time to regroup in relative safety and privacy, I could have cried.
The suite had a central living room with a bedroom on each side. Going directly to the bedroom on the right, I took off my shoes, lay down on my very own king-size bed, and surrounded myself with pillows. That's something I love about really good hotels: the abundance of pillows.
Once I was padded and quiet and warm, I closed my eyes and let my thoughts drift. Of course, they drifted right to the little girl I'd found in the cemetery.
I'd assumed Tabitha was dead from the moment I'd read about her disappearance, weeks before the Morgensterns had asked me to find her body. Based on the information in the newspaper accounts and even more on my own experience, that was a logical assumption. In fact, I'd been fairly sure the child had been dead since scant hours after her disappearance.
That didn't mean I was happy to be right. I'm not callous about death; at least I don't think I am. I think of myself as moreâ¦matter-of-fact. And I'd seen the Morgensterns' anguish first-hand. Because of my sympathy for them, I'd persisted longer in the search than I'd thought was reasonable, and certainly long enough to cut into our profit very severely. Tolliver didn't even charge them the full amount; he didn't say anything to me, but when I went over our profits and expenses at the end of the year, I'd noticed.
Since Tabitha had been dead all this time, I thought it would be better for Joel and Diane to know what had happened to their daughter.
I could only hope that the sentiment I'd sprouted so glibly to the detective was valid. I could only hope that knowing for sure what had happened to Tabitha gave the Morgensterns some relief. At least they would know she wasn't in the hands of some madman, actively suffering.
I found myself wishing I'd had longer with the body. I'd been so startled at the identity of the grave's unauthorized inhabitant that I hadn't spent enough energy evaluating the
girl's last moments. I'd only seen the blue cushion, a flash of the long seconds as Tabitha slipped into unconsciousness and then passed awayâas she passed from the imitation of death to death itself.
I don't believe that death and life are two sides of the same coin. I think that's bullshit. I'm not going to say Tabitha was at peace with God, because God hasn't let me know on that one. And there'd been a strange feeling to my connection with the body; a sensation I'd seldom experienced before. I tried to analyze the difference, but I didn't come up with anything. That would bother me until I understood it.
I have seen a lot of deathâa
I know death the way most people know sleep, or eating. Death is a fundamental human necessity, a solitary passage into the unknown. But Tabitha had made her passage years too early, at the end of a painful and frightening ordeal. I was sorry for the manner of her death. And something about it had marked her during that transition, in a way I had yet to understand. I filed it away to consider later; maybe another trip to the cemetery would help. It was hardly likely I'd be in contact with the body again.
I turned onto my side and stretched back to prop a pillow against my shoulders. I turned my thoughts down a mental path so familiar that it had ruts worn in it. That path led to my sister Cameron. Her face was fuzzy in my memory now, or it took on the contours of her last school picture, which I carried in my wallet.
Somehow, discovering Tabitha's corpse in such an indirect
and unexpected way gave me hope that someday I might find my sister Cameron's remains.
Cameron has been gone for six years. Like Tabitha, she was snatched out of the stream of her life, leaving her backpack behind on the shore as witness to her departure. When Cameron had become way overdue at home that day, I started looking for her. I'd roused my mother enough to feel she could watch Mariella and Gracie for at least a little while, and I'd trudged through the sweltering heat, following the route Cameron took when she walked home from the high school. It was getting to be twilight by then. Cameron had stayed at school later than I because she was helping to decorate for a dance; the senior prom, I think.
I'd found her backpack, fully loaded with the schoolbooks, notebooks, notes passed to her in class, broken pencils, and small change. And that was all that was left of Cameron. The police had kept it for a long time, gone through its compartments, asked me about the content of every note. Then we'd asked for its return. Today, we carried that backpack in the trunk of our car.
When Tolliver came in, I was still lying on my bed. I'd rotated again, to lie flat on my back as I gazed at the ceiling, thinking about my sister.
“The car from the hotel's going to pick up Art at the airport,” he said. “I got it all arranged.”
“Thanks,” I said, moving over to give him room. He lay on the other half of the vast king bed, shoes properly off. I let him have a pillow. Then I gave him another one.
“Looking back on the cemetery thing this morning,” he
began, and gave me a moment to fix my attention back on the nearer past.
“Okay,” I said, to let him know I was ready to listen.
“Did you notice that man mixed in with the kids?”
“Yes, the guy who looked to be about thirty-five or so?”
“Dark brown hair, five ten, medium build.”
“Right. Yes, of course I noticed him. He stood out.”
“You think there was something fishy about him?”
“There was another older student,” I said, not really protesting Tolliver's direction, but testing it out.
“Yeah, but she was a regular person. There was something off about this guy; he was there for a purpose, not because he had to be. You think he was some kind of professional debunker? There to spot how we did it, and expose us?”
“Well, I think that was Clyde Nunley's goal in teaching the course, don't you? Not an inquiry to stimulate students' minds to seriously consider spiritualism and the people who practice it, but to prove that it's all claptrap.”
“But not asâ¦I don't know, this guy seemed to have an agenda. He was purposeful.”
“I know what you mean,” I said.
“You think we've been set up?”
“Yes, I sure do think so. Unless this is most amazing coincidence in the history of coincidences.”
“But why?” Tolliver turned his head to look at me.
“And who?” I countered.
The worry in his face mirrored my own.
My business would die without word of mouth. But it
has to be a quiet word. If I brought a trail of newspaper and television reporters with me, half the people who use my services wouldn't want to see me coming. There are a few who'd love nothing better, but only a few. Most clients are embarrassed at hiring me at all, because they don't want to seem gullible. Some are desperate enough to be just that. But very few of them want any outside scrutiny.
So restrained coverage from time to time is okay. Once, a really good reporter wrote a story on me for a law enforcement journal, and I still get business from that exposure. Lots of officers clipped that story; when all else fails, they may get in touch with me through my website. My prices scare off some of the people who apply for my services. I'm not a lawyer, and no one asks me to do pro bono work.
Well, that's not true. People do. But I refuse.
However, I've never left a body unreported. If I find one in the course of a job, I'll report it, and I never ask for extra money for that.
If I got into the news too much, I'd be absolutely grabbing at pro bono work, just to get the good press. I didn't want to have to do that.
“Who do you think would hire such a person? Someone I didn't satisfy?” I asked the ceiling.
“We've found everyone since Tabitha,” Tolliver said.
Yes, I'd had a long string of successes: cases with enough information to go on and enough persistence on my part. Bodies found, causes of death confirmed. Money in the bank.
“Maybe someone connected with the college who wanted to check on what the class was being exposed to?” I guessed.
“Could be. Or someone connected with St. Margaret's, who felt the cemetery was being used in some irreligious way.”
We both fell silent, puzzled and unhappy about too many things at once.
“I'm glad I found her, though,” I said. “No matter what.”
My brother, who had followed my thoughts as he often did, said, “Yeah.”
“Nice people,” I said.
“You never thought what the police suspectedâ?”
“No,” I said. “I never believed Joel did it. These days, everyone looks at the dad first. Did he molest her?” I did my television announcer voice. “Were there dark secrets in the house that seemed so normal?” I smiled with a twist of my mouth. People sure loved believing there were dark secretsâthey love discovering happy normal families are anything but. Truly, sometimes there were plenty of secrets, more than enough to go around. But Joel and Diane Morgenstern had struck me as truly devoted parents, and I'd seen enough of the kind of parents who weren't to recognize the ones who were.
“I never believed it,” I repeated. “Butâhere they are. In Memphis.” We looked at each other. “How the hell could it have happened that her body turned up here, the city where her parents are living now? Unless there's a connection.”
There was a tap at our suite door.
“The troops are here,” Tolliver said.
“Well. The troop.”
Art was missing a lot of his hair. What remained was
curly and white. He was very heavy, but he dressed very well. So he looked like an eminently respectable, sweet-natured grandpaâwhich just goes to show how deceptive appearances can be.
Art maintains the fiction that he is my father substitute.
“Harper!” he cried, throwing open his arms. I stepped in, gave him a light hug, and backed away when I could. Tolliver got a clap on the shoulder and a handshake.
We asked about his wife, and he told us what (but not how) Johanna was doing: taking art classes, keeping the grandchildren, remaining active in their church and several charities.
Not that we'd ever met Johanna.
I watched Art grope, trying to think of someone he could ask us about in return. He could hardly ask about our parents: my mother had died the previous year, in jail, of AIDS. Tolliver's mother had died years ago, of breast cancer, before we'd even met Art. Tolliver's dad, my stepfather, was in the wind since he'd gotten out of jail, having served his time on drug charges. My own father was still in big-boy prison, and would be for maybe five more years. He'd taken some money from his clients to support the drug habit he and my mother had developed. We never saw our little half sisters, Gracie and Mariella, because my Aunt Iona, my mom's sister, had poisoned the girls against us. Tolliver's brother, Mark, had his own life, and didn't much approve of ours, but we called him at least once a month.
And of course, there was never any news about Cameron.
“It's great to see you two looking so healthy,” Art said in
his heartiest voice. “Now, let's order some room service, and you can tell me all about this.” Art loved it when we ate together. Not only did it make the meal billable, but it also reassured Art that Tolliver and I were normal people and not some kind of vampires. After all, we ate and drank like the rest of the world.
“It should be up in a minute,” Tolliver said, and Art had to go on and on about how amazed he was that Tolliver had been so farseeing.
Actually, I was pretty impressed myself.
Art made notes throughout the meal as we told him everything we remembered about our previous search for Tabitha Morgenstern. My brother got out his laptop and checked our records to be sure of how much the Morgensterns had paid us for our fruitless search. We assured Art that we had no intention of charging them anything for finding her todayâin fact, the idea made me sick. Art looked kind of relieved when I told him that.
“There's no way we can leave here without seeing the Morgensterns or talking to the police?” I asked, knowing I sounded cowardly.
“No way in the world,” Art said. For once, he sounded as hard as he actually was. “In fact, the sooner you talk to them, the better. And you have to issue a press statement.”
“Why?” Tolliver asked.
“Silence is suspicious. You have to say clearly that you had no idea that you would find Tabitha's body, that you're shocked and saddened, and that you are praying for the Morgensterns.”
“We already told Channel Thirteen that.”
“You need to tell everyone.”