Read Grave Surprise Online

Authors: Charlaine Harris

Grave Surprise (9 page)

“She'll go back to work, even if she said she wouldn't,” I told Tolliver. “Staying at home will be too boring after all that shooting and chasing. After all, she bashed that guy in the head with her iron.”

“Nah, I think she'll marry the cop, stay home, and devote herself to making her family supper every single night,” Tolliver said. “She'll never order Chinese takeout again. Remember, she tore down the menu that was tacked to the wall by the phone?”

“She'll probably just order pizza instead.”

He laughed and fished the receipt from the cab out of his pocket so he could call for another one to take us back to the hotel.

Suddenly, my left arm was seized in a strong grip. To say I got a scare would be a large understatement. I turned to stare at a woman holding me. She was wearing a voluminous coat with a loud plaid pattern. She had dyed red hair pulled up on one side of her head to cascade over to the other side in a waterfall of curls. Her lipstick was not exactly within the lines of her actual lips, and her earrings were huge chandeliers with glittery stones that caught the afternoon sun.

Tolliver had swung around and his free hand was heading for her throat.

“I just have to talk to you,” she said, in a hurried, abstracted way.

“Hi, Xylda,” I said, trying for that calm, level voice you use when you're talking to someone you know is over the edge.

“Xylda,” Tolliver said, almost in a growl. He'd been ready for action, and now he had to be tolerant. With more force than necessary, he shoved his phone back into his pocket. “What can we do for you today? How'd you come to be here?”

“You're in such danger,” she said. “Such terrible danger. I felt I had to warn you. You're so young, dear. You can't know how terrible this world can be.”

Actually, I thought I had a pretty good idea. “Tolliver and I aren't young in experience, Xylda,” I said, trying to keep my voice gentle. “Look, there's a restaurant over there. Shall we go have a cup of hot chocolate, or some coffee? Maybe they have tea?”

“That would be good, really good,” she said. Xylda was as different from me as she could be: shorter, bulkier, and at least thirty years older. She'd been in the psychic business ever since she'd quit prostitution, which had been her first profession. Xylda's husband, Robert, had been her handler, and his death the year before had thrown Xylda for a real loop. I didn't know how she was going to survive unless someone else took her in hand. She sure didn't look or behave like someone I'd want to employ if I were in the market for a psychic. Then again, maybe I was overestimating the public. Some clients actually believed that Xylda's odd
manner and dress reinforced the fact that she was a living, breathing psychic.

I disagreed. I knew that a lot of psychics, both real and fake, were also emotionally unstable or out-and-out mentally ill. If you're born psychic, you're going to pay a price, a high one. It's a terrible gift.

Only two of the psychics I'd met managed to live just like ordinary people, but those two were exceptions. And neither of them was Xylda, of course.

Looking gloomy but resigned, Tolliver led Xylda into the cafe and helped her take her awful coat off. He left to get our drinks, while I settled Xylda in at a little table as far from other patrons as I could manage, given that the coffee shop wasn't a large business. I took a deep breath and tried to fix an understanding smile on my face.

Xylda clutched my hand, and I had to bite my lower lip to keep from yanking it away. Casual touching is not comfortable for me, and she'd already held onto me twice; but I reminded myself that Xylda must have a reason for the deliberate contact. As I knew from her own account at a previous meeting, Xylda was being bombarded with images from me. She'd explained it to me once when she'd been having a good day, back when Robert had been alive. “It's like watching a very fast slide show,” she'd said. “I see pictures, pictures of the life of the person I'm touching, some from the past and some from the future and some…” She'd fallen silent and shaken her head.

“Do they all come true?” I'd asked.

“I have no way of knowing. I know they
might
come true.”

Xylda looked at me now, and her blue eyes really saw me. “In the time of ice, you'll be so happy,” she said.

“Good,” I said, having no idea what she was talking about. But that was the way of conversations with Xylda, if you could call this a conversation.

“You can't keep lying,” Xylda said gently. “You have to stop doing that. It won't hurt anyone.”

“I think I'm truthful,” I said, surprised. Many things I could be accused of, and my accuser would be right. But not this.

“Oh, you're truthful about the things that don't matter.”

“Did someone come to Memphis with you, Xylda?”

“Yes, Manfred did.”

“Where is Manfred?” I wasn't completely sure who Manfred was, but learning someone had charge of Xylda was a relief.

“He's parking the car. There wasn't a space.”

“Oh, good,” I said, relieved to hear such a prosaic explanation. Tolliver arrived at the table with our drinks. Xylda seemed glad to get the coffee, which was redolent of vanilla and sugar, and she swirled in even more sugar with the little brown plastic stirrer. Mine was regular coffee, and Tolliver had gotten hot chocolate. “Tolliver, Xylda says Manfred is with her.”

He raised his eyebrows in query, so he didn't know who that was, either. I shrugged. “She says he's out parking the car.”

Tolliver stood and stared out the glass windows, then began waving vigorously to someone. “I think I spotted him,”
he said, sinking back into his chair. “He's coming in.” Tolliver was smiling broadly.

“He's a good boy,” Xylda said. She smiled at us. “Listen, I hear you found the Morgenstern girl.” Suddenly, she sounded completely practical and all present and accounted for, mentally.

“Yes,” I said.

“You know, they called me in.”

“Yeah?”

“It wasn't the boy,” Xylda said. “There was passion involved. But there was no sex with the little girl.”

“Okay,” I said. “Then why was she killed?”

“I don't know,” Xylda said. She looked down into her coffee cup.

See what I mean about psychics being very little help?

“But I know you'll find out,” Xylda said, and she looked up at me very sharply. “I won't be there to see it, but you'll find out.”

“Are you going to a different city? Have you got another booking?”

“Yes,” she said quite definitely. “I have another booking. You know, I'm the real thing, and people know that when they meet me.”

“Yes, they do,” Tolliver agreed, and then a thin young man came up to us, dressed all in black. This was Manfred, I assumed.

“I saw her surprise you,” Manfred said cheerfully. “Sorry about that. Are you her friends? She said she had to meet some friends here.”

Amazing. Xylda's psychic ability had led her to meet with us outside a Cineplex. Manfred was a narrow-shouldered young man in his late teens or early twenties. He had a narrow face and slicked-back peroxided hair, a matching goatee, and at least one tattoo visible on the side of his neck. He had a face decorated with many piercings and his hands were covered with silver rings.

He matched Xylda, in an odd sort of way.

“I'm Tolliver Lang and this is Harper Connelly,” Tolliver said. “Are you related to Xylda?”

“This is my grandson,” Xylda said proudly.

I was willing to bet that few grandmothers would be able to look at Manfred's extreme facial embellishment without wincing, much less with Xylda's simple pride. There was much to Manfred that met the eye, and quite a lot that didn't—and his grandmother was certainly psychic enough to sense that.

We told the young man we were pleased to meet him, and we explained that we crossed paths with Xylda professionally from time to time.

“She jumped up this morning, right at the breakfast table,” Manfred said. “She said we had to go to Memphis. So we got in the car, and here we are.” He seemed proud of having taken his grandmother so seriously, of having gotten her here on time to keep her self-appointed rendezvous.

“You know the body was found,” I said to Xylda, who'd finished her coffee before the rest of us had begun to sip at ours.

“Yes, and I knew it was going to be found in a graveyard,”
Xylda said. “I just didn't know which one. I'm glad you found the girl. She's been dead a long time.”

“Since the day she vanished?” I asked.

“No, not quite,” Xylda said. “She lived a few hours. Not more than that.”

I was actually relieved to hear this. “That's what I thought. Thanks for telling me,” I said. I wondered if I should relay this bit of information to the police or to Tabitha's family. After a moment's consideration, I realized that was a very bad idea. If it had been hard for the police to believe me, it would be impossible for them to give Xylda any credence. If you could say
anyone
looked like an ex-hooker turned professional psychic, Xylda would be the picture you'd come up with. Police aren't inclined to trust either one, and Xylda reinforced that distrust with every sentence she uttered.

“I Saw it,” Xylda said. I could hear the capital letter in her voice. Her grandson Manfred smiled at his grandmother, the epitome of pride. It was obvious Manfred simply didn't care that almost everyone in the shop had taken a moment or two to stare at our little group. I thought that was extraordinary, especially for a young man hardly out of his teens, if indeed he was. I realized that Manfred and Victor Morgenstern were very close in age. I wondered what the two would make of each other, and found the idea of their conversation almost unimaginable.

“Xylda, have you caught a glimpse of who took her?” Tolliver asked. He spoke very quietly, almost inaudibly, because there was no doubt people were listening.

“It was for love,” Xylda said. “For love!” Xylda spoke right out.

She smiled at each of us, a distinct and separate look, and then she told Manfred it was time for her nap.

“Sure, Granny,” he said. He stood and pulled her chair back for her. I hadn't seen a man do that in years. As Xylda picked up her purse and began to shuffle toward the door, the fascinated gaze of the other patrons following the progress of the enormous plaid coat, Manfred bent to take my hand. “A pleasure to see you,” he said, and he suddenly sounded older than his years. “If you ever need a buddy to hang with, Harper, I'm willing to jump in there.”

The look in his eyes told me that no matter how old Manfred was chronologically, biologically he was a fully developed male. Suddenly I felt very self-conscious and ridiculously flattered.

“I hear you,” I said, and Manfred kissed my hand. Because of the piercings, the effect was strange. I felt a little tongue, a little brush of soft hair from the goatee, and surely a cold metallic touch from a stud in his mouth. I didn't know whether to laugh, or shriek, or pant.

“Just think of the kids we would have,” Manfred said, and I opted for smiling.

“That's a step too far, there,” I said. “You were doing great, up until the kids.”

“I'll remember,” he said, smiling back. “Next time I won't make the same mistake.”

When they left, I turned to Tolliver to ask him what he'd
gotten out of Xylda's tangled contribution. Tolliver was staring after Manfred with no friendly face.

“Oh, get real,” I said. “Tolliver! He's years younger than me!”

“Right, maybe three,” Tolliver said, and I remembered that Tolliver was three years older. “He's got balls, I'll give him that.”

“Probably pierced ones,” I said, and Tolliver gave me a startled look and an unwilling laugh.

“What would you say if I got a tattoo and a ring through my eyebrow?” he said.

“I'd definitely want to watch,” I said. “And it would be interesting to see what kind of tattoo you picked.” I looked at him for a moment, trying to imagine Tolliver with a silver hoop in his eyebrow or nostril, and I grinned. “And where you put it.”

“Oh, if I ever got one, I'd get it on my lower back,” he said. “So I could cover it up almost all the time.”

“You've put thought into this.”

“Yeah. A little.”

“Hmmm. You've picked out the tattoo?”

“Sure.”

“What?”

“A lightning bolt,” he said, and I couldn't tell if he was serious or not.

seven

DURING
our cab ride back from the suburban Cineplex to the downtown hotel, I had a little time to think. Xylda was nuts, but she was a true psychic. If she said Tabitha had lived a few hours after the abduction, I believed her. I should have asked different questions, I realized. I should have asked Xylda
why
Tabitha's abductor had kept her alive for that long. A sexual reason? Some other purpose?

“Did it seem to you that Xylda was nuttier than usual?” Tolliver asked, echoing my thoughts to an eerie degree.

“Yes,” I said. “The kind of nutty that made me wonder how old she really is.”

“She couldn't be over sixty, right?”

“I would have said younger, but today…”

“She looked okay.”

“As okay as Xylda ever looks.”

“True. But she seemed to walk just fine, and maneuver all right physically.”

“But mentally, she was quite a bit more off…so vague. ‘In the time of ice, you'll be happy.' What the hell does that mean?”

“Yeah, that was weird. And the part about being truthful.”

I nodded. “‘The time of ice.' She could have told us things that would have been a hell of a lot more to the point. Maybe it's the loss of Robert that's thrown her for such a loop? Not that she was ever Miss Stability. At least Manfred seems to be taking good care of her, and he respects her talent.”

“Think we should mention that guy we met in San Francisco to the Morgensterns? Think they'd be open to a clairvoyant?”

“Nah,” I said instantly. “Tom will make something up if he doesn't get a genuine reading.”

“So would Xylda.”

“But only when it didn't matter, Tolliver.” He looked at me as if he couldn't see the difference.

“Like if it was some teenager visiting her on a dare, wanting to know if she'd be happy in the future, Xylda might make up stuff so the kid would leave confident and cheerful. That kind of thing, that can't hurt. But if a lot depended on it, if the client took her seriously, Xylda wouldn't say, ‘Oh yes, your missing son is really alive,' unless she got a true vision. Tom will tell you something under any circumstances, whether or not he really knows anything. He'll just make it up.”

“Then I won't mention him,” Tolliver said, though he
sounded a little huffy. “I was trying to think of some way to help them get through this, and I think the only way they're going to come out the other side of it is to find out who did kill Tabitha. That is, if it really
wasn't
one of them.”

“I know,” I said, surprised at his irritation.

“What did you get from her yesterday? When you were standing on the grave?”

I was very reluctant to return to that moment. But then I thought of the faces of Diane and Joel Morgenstern, and the cloud of suspicion surrounding them, and I knew I had to return to Tabitha's last resting place.

“You think we could go back to the site?” I asked. “I know there's no physical remains there, but it might help.”

Tolliver never questioned my professional judgment. “Then we'll go,” he said. “But I think we better go tonight, so no one'll follow us. We won't want to be in a cab for that.”

I agreed, especially after I caught our current cabbie's curious look in the rearview mirror.

“You want him to drop us off on Beale?” Tolliver asked. “Maybe we could go listen to some music before supper?”

I glanced at my watch. It seemed unlikely that there would be good blues playing at five in the afternoon. “Why don't you go?” I suggested. “I'll go back to the hotel and take a nap.”

So Tolliver got out at B.B. King's Blues Club on legendary Beale Street, and reminded the cabbie where he was to drop me off. The cabbie made a face, said, “Sure, man, I remember,” and drove me right to the Cleveland. “He's a
little on the protective side,” the man said when I was paying him. “Your man is a worrier.”

“Yes,” I said. “My brother.”

“Your
brother
?” The cabbie looked at me, half-smiling, sure I was pulling his leg.

I told him to keep the change because I was kind of rattled, and I scrambled out of the cab and into the hotel without looking around me, which was stupid.

For the second time that day, someone seized hold of me. But this time it was a man, an angry man. He grabbed me as I walked into the lobby, and he marched me over to a chair before I could even be sure who he was.

Dr. Clyde Nunley was slightly better dressed than he had been the morning before. This afternoon he looked like a typical college professor in his sport jacket and dark slacks. His shoes needed shining.

“How'd you do it?” he asked me, still gripping my arm.

“What?”

“You've made a fool out of me. I was standing right there. Those records were sealed. I watched over them. No one else had read them. How did you do it? You make me look like an idiot in front of the students, and then your damn pimp calls me to ask me for my money.”

I was disgusted, and I realized Dr. Nunley had been drinking.

I tried to yank my arm away. He'd scared me, so now I was proportionately angrier.

“Drop my arm and stand away from me,” I said, and I said it sharply and loudly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the three (very young) staff members at the counter were buzzing around nervously, unsure of what to do. I was so glad when someone else stepped forward and clamped a hand on Dr. Nunley's shoulder.

“Let go of the lady,” said the man who'd been in the class the day before. He had that stillness about him that says, “I know what I'm doing and no one messes with me.”

“What?” Clyde Nunley was very confused by the interruption of his bullying session. His grip on me didn't loosen. I had a wild impulse to grab the arm of Mr. Student, so we'd all be standing there holding on to one another. We must look ridiculous.

“Dr. Nunley, let go of me or I'll break your fucking fingers,” I said, and that worked like a charm. He looked startled, as if I'd finally become a real person to him. Mr. Student kept hold of the inebriated professor, and his mouth moved in a very small smile.

By that time, one of the staff members had hustled around the desk and was striding over to us, trying to hurry without looking like he was hurrying. It was the pleasant-faced man in his twenties who'd checked us in. “Problem, Ms. Connelly?”

“Don't say a word,” hissed Dr. Nunley, as though that would be sure to shut me up. He must normally deal with the well-mannered children of the privileged.

“Yes, there is a problem,” I said to the young man, and Clyde Nunley's face twisted with surprise. He just didn't think I'd complain about him; I don't know why. “This man
grabbed me when I came into the lobby, and he won't leave me alone. If this gentleman hadn't helped me out, he might have hit me.” Of course, I didn't know that, but Dr. Nunley had definitely been spoiling for a confrontation, and if he thought I was going to forget he'd called my brother a pimp, he had another thought coming.

“Do you know him, Ms. Connelly?”

“I don't know him,” I said firmly. In an existential sense, this was the truth. Do any of us know each other, really? I was sure the staff would back me up with no qualms if they thought Dr. Nunley was a stranger off the street, out to harass me. The minute I said the words “Doctor” and “Bingham College” I'd lose some of my own stature as a wronged female.

My new assistant, Mr. Student, said, “In that case, mister, I think you should leave. And in view of the fact that you seem drunk, I'd call a cab if I were you.”

The clerk made a courteous gesture toward the door, as if Dr. Nunley were an honored guest. “One of our bellmen will be happy to call a cab for you,” the clerk said in a sunny voice. “Right this way.”

And before Dr. Nunley could regroup, he was out onto the sidewalk and under the watchful eye of the two bellmen who stood there waiting for cars to pull up.

“Thanks,” I said to Mr. Student. “I didn't get your name yesterday.”

“Rick Goldman.”

“Harper Connelly,” I said, with a little nod. I shook his hand, though my own was not steady. “How did you come
to be on the right spot at the right moment, Mr. Goldman?”

“Rick, please. ‘Mr. Goldman' makes me feel even older than I am. Would you care to sit and talk for a minute?” There were two brocaded wing chairs at a comfortable angle and distance for conversation.

I hesitated, tempted. I wasn't as calm and steady as I was making out. In fact, I was still shaking. I'd been taken by surprise, and in a bad kind of way. “For a minute,” I said carefully, and sank down as gracefully as I could manage. I didn't want Rick Goldman to know exactly how shaky I was.

He sat opposite me, his square dark face carefully blank. “I'm an alumnus of Bingham,” he said.

That told me absolutely nothing. “So are lots of other people, but I don't see them here now,” I said. “What's your point?”

“I was a cop on the Memphis force for years. Now I'm a private investigator.”

“Okay.” I wished he'd cut the circling around and arrive at the point.

“The board of trustees is pretty sharply divided right now,” Rick Goldman said. Okay, I was getting bored. I raised my eyebrows and nodded encouragingly.

“There's a liberal majority and a conservative minority. That minority is very concerned with Bingham's public profile. When that conservative faction of the board found out what Clyde was doing in his class, they asked if I would oversee the visiting speakers.”

“Keep your fingers on the pulse,” I said.

“Keep my ear to the ground,” he confirmed.

He seemed quite serious. I had a feeling Rick Goldman was a serious kind of guy. “Clyde didn't suspect you?”

“I paid my money and signed up for the class,” Rick Goldman said. “Nothing he could do about it.”

“The older lady in the class, she a monitor, too?”

“Nah, she just likes to take anthropology classes.”

I thought about this for a second. “So, you just happened to be standing in the lobby here this evening?”

“No, not exactly.”

“Following Clyde, were you?”

“No. He's boring. You're a lot more interesting.”

I wasn't exactly sure how the private detective meant that.

“So have you been following me and my brother?”

“No. But I have been waiting here for you. I wanted to ask you some questions, after watching you in action yesterday.”

I owed him the Q&A, after his timely intervention in the Clyde Nunley incident. “I'll listen,” I said, which was more than I usually did.

“How'd you do it?” He leaned forward, his eyes fixed on my face. If the circumstances had been different it might have been a flattering moment. But I was afraid I knew what he meant, and that wasn't flattering at all.

I looked back at him with the same intensity. “You know I couldn't have learned any of that ahead of time,” I said. “You
know
that, right?”

“Were you in cahoots with Clyde? And now you've had a falling out?”

“No, Mr. Goldman. I'm not in cahoots with anyone. I don't think I've ever heard anyone even say that phrase out
loud, by the way.” I broke eye contact, sighed. “I'm the real thing. You may not want to believe it, but eventually you'll have to. Thanks again.” I got up and walked very carefully over to the elevators. My leg was still not steady, and it would be too embarrassing if I fell down.

I punched the up button with a quick stab of my finger. The elevator obligingly opened, and I stepped in, punching our floor number with a quick sideways motion of my hand. I stood with my back to the door so I wouldn't have to see him again.

I was ashamed that I had needed help. If I were as tough as I wanted to be, I could have thrown Clyde Nunley to the floor and kicked him. But that might have been a slight overreaction. I found myself smiling at the back wall of the elevator. I guess I'm the kind of woman who smiles when she thinks about kicking a man when he's down; at least, that man.

I told myself to stiffen my spine. After all, I'd handled that okay. I hadn't screamed or cried or lost my dignity.
I'm not a weak person,
I told myself.
I just get rattled sometimes.
And then there was the physical stuff left over from the lightning strike. One of those symptoms struck now, a headache so vicious I had trouble fitting my plastic key into the slot and getting into my room.

I opened my medicine bag and took a handful of Advil, and then I yanked off my shoes. I knew from experience how comfortable the bed was, and I knew in ten minutes I would feel better. I promised myself that. Actually, it took more like twenty minutes before the pain subsided to a bearable
level, and then I looked at the ceiling and thought about Dr. Nunley and his temper until I fell asleep.

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