Authors: Evan Ronan
“Can I help you?” the young man in nursing scrubs asked him through the front office window.
“Hi. I was wondering if I could see Mr. Oliver? Lee Oliver.”
The attendant tried to place him. “Never seen you before. Are you family?”
The man regarded him skeptically. “Then who are you?”
“Edward McCloskey. I’m doing a little research on the area and about the house he used to live in.”
“What kind of research?”
“Historical.” It wasn’t a lie.
The man at the desk folded his arms.
“I won’t take too much of his time. He used to work at the foundry.” Eddie hoped the vagueness of his comment would be enough, like a mentalist tricking a subject into believing their mind was being read.
The attendant slid the opaque window shut. Eddie listened and heard him speaking softly on the telephone. He wanted to get in to see Mr. Oliver today, before the DA got a load of what he was doing and especially before Gracie Barbitok burst onto the scene. He had a precious few hours left before she’d be looking over his shoulder the rest of the way.
The window slid open. “I’m sorry, Mr. McCloskey, but today is not a good day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Could you give me his room number? I’m not sure I can come all the way out here again, so I might just call inst—”
“Sorry, but no. Patient privacy. Have a nice day.” The window slid shut with a thud.
Councilman Bennett Towson leaned forward. “Say that again.”
Spencer, the DA, steepled his hands and kept the smile off his face. He had to remind himself that he was technically delivering bad news, even though it was good news for his prosecution of Anson Ketcher. Ross, the detective in charge of the investigation, stood in the corner of the DA’s office, sipping a soda.
“Trace samples of Anson’s skin under Alice’s fingernails,” Spencer said. “Either they had a fight or …”
Ross saved the DA the embarrassment of discussing Alice’s sexual activity with the councilman. “There is no or, Bennett. They weren’t on speaking terms the last month or so according to Anson. That means this is evidence of them fighting.”
The councilman got a faraway look in his eye. “I hate to say this but…
Spencer and Ross exchanged the briefest of looks. Nobody said a word.
Towson pushed himself out of the chair, went to the window. It was after seven and the sun was on its way down. He checked the parking lot and didn’t see any news people. He normally craved media attention but didn’t feel like facing them right now.
Towson turned back around. “When’s Barbitok arriving?”
Spencer checked his watch. “They’re touching down any minute, so probably not here until eight-thirty, nine.”
The councilman nodded. “Is she going to the house tonight?”
Spencer smiled. “No.”
Ross put his soda on the desk behind him. “I’m just gonna get some air. I’ll be right outside.”
Spencer waited till the door was closed. “Forgive the detective, Bennett. He’s a good cop but his sense of fair play is easily offended. He prefers not to know what I’m doing because otherwise he’ll feel compelled to do something about it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Spencer got up. “Drink, Councilman?”
“I could use five.”
Spencer poured two scotch and sodas, handed one to the councilman. “The judge handed us a present with that injunctive order today.”
“How so? I thought he only said both experts had to be present at the house at the same time.”
“He did. It’s to our advantage to limit Mr. McCloskey’s access to the house. The more times he’s there, the more opportunities he’ll have to fabricate things. I told Gracie to stop for dinner, and not check in to her hotel tonight until ten. If she doesn’t go tonight, he can’t go tonight.”
Towson chuckled ruefully. “You’re not afraid he’s going to find something.”
Spencer could see the councilman starting to get angry. “It’s my job to worry about everything, Bennett. I don’t think he’s going to find anything, but I’m not the jury.”
“You’re saying Anson could get off? I thought this was open-and-shut.”
Spencer felt the conversation taking a career-dangerous turn. It was time to reframe the argument and set the appropriate client expectation level. “Bennett, this is a good case. I’m just thinking of all angles.”
“You just told me that motherfucker’s skin was under Alice’s fingernails! What the hell more do you need?”
Rational jurors, Spencer thought. He just had to pick the right people and this would be a walk in the park. But picking good jurors wasn’t easy. You never knew with people. You just never knew.
“I need everything I can get, Bennett. I’m playing as fast and loose with the rules as I can. But, I’m not a miracle worker.”
Councilman Towson stepped back from Spencer’s desk and finished his drink. “If this guy walks…”
Spencer said, “Damnit, Bennett, I think I’ve got this guy. But there’s an old saying. You know never what the jury is going to do.”
The councilman stood there thoughtfully for a moment. Then he put the empty glass on the corner of Spencer’s desk. “Just get this son of a bitch. Or there might be a change in the DA’s office during my next term.”
* * * *
The councilman left the DA’s office and nodded at Ross on his way to the car. The detective told him not to worry.
Towson got in his Audi and started driving. He didn’t go home. He wanted to stop at a bar for another drink, now that the scotch at Spencer’s office had whetted his appetite. But he couldn’t be seen drinking at a bar right now. It would show weakness. Grief was okay. If presented correctly, it was even beneficial. Weakness was not. And in a few short months the good citizens of the county would decide his fate at the polls.
Spencer was a lawyer alright. Adept at talking out of both sides of his mouth. Last night, he was all guarantees, solemn assurances. Now, when he had
incriminating evidence, he was backpedaling because juries were oh-so-unpredictable.
Towson couldn’t stomach the thought of Anson Ketcher going free. The man had…
Towson had to pull over. He couldn’t see through the tears in his eyes. He slammed his fist into the steering wheel until his hand hurt.
He’d told Alice not to marry the dumb hick. That she was better than him and the rest of the local podunks who’d barely made it out of high school.
She hadn’t listened.
She’d taken all his other advice to heart. She did well in school. After she’d recovered from her cancer, she hadn’t used that as an excuse to turn into a wild child. She was a pillar of their church, understood the importance of family, and had helped him out on every campaign he’d had to run. She was the model daughter in every way.
Except perhaps in the way that mattered the most, he realized with grim morbidness. What did it matter now that she’d made the Honor Roll throughout high school? What did it matter now that she’d been the most devout member of the youth group? What did it matter now that she’d recovered from cancer and battled her seizure disorder with a stoic’s grace?
The truth was, none of it mattered. She’d picked the wrong husband and it had cost her everything.
If the councilman could take it all back, he’d encourage her to raise hell in her teens. He’d tell her not to worry so much about acing that chemistry exam, the only subject that had never come easily for her. He’d tell her it was okay to act out every once in awhile, to not worry about how it reflected on her or on him and his career.
He’d tell her a lot of things. But most of all, he’d tell her to pick a good man.
He’d tell her to marry someone who would make her happy. Because wasn’t that the most important decision of anybody’s life? What good was that A in high school chem doing for her now?
She’d still be alive if he’d just…
The councilman gripped the steering wheel till his knuckles whitened and he sobbed. He’d made a decision to get the majority of the grief out of his system right now. Sure, he’d cry at the viewing. The sight of his beautiful daughter in that coffin would move the hardest of hearts to tears. And he’d weep over her grave. But those emotional purges would be aftershocks to this event.
He had come to terms with his responsibility in this matter. He had failed, possibly in some crucial way, as a father. He had to accept that.
And he had to move on if there was anything to be done about the present situation.
Councilman Towson wiped under his eyes and slipped the Audi back into gear. He pulled off the soft shoulder of the road and drove to the old sandlot across from his office. He parked and thought about what he was going to do.
Then made up his mind.
He shut the car off and dialed a number on his cell. No part of him doubted the decision he’d just made.
“Bennett, my God, I’m so sorry.”
A huge lump formed in his throat, but the councilman swallowed it and put steel in his voice. “Hello, Alan, thank you for that.”
“I was planning on calling again … but I didn’t want to disturb you and your family.”
“Of course. I understand.” The councilman paused. Thirty plus years of the political life had taught him to carefully choose his words. “Alan, I know we’ve had our differences and haven’t always seen eye-to-eye but …”
The man on the other end of the line filled the pregnant pause. “Bennett, if there’s something I can do for you, you should let me know.”
“My daughter’s killer might go free. The DA is worried.”
“What? How? Don’t tell me—”
“All it takes is reasonable doubt. The defense is bringing in this expert on the paranormal…if the jury believes him, if he can put the tiniest doubt in their minds, then…”
Councilman Towson let Alan make the connection. There was a long stretch of silence.
Then Alan spoke. “There are things that can be done.”
The politician smiled. Over the years, he’d racked up a lot of debt but many people, like Alan, still owed him favors. On the whole, his political ledger was pretty balanced.
“If he can be…made to see reason,” the councilman said.
“He can be made to see a lot more than reason.”
“Nothing too serious. This has to be handled with a certain amount of delicacy.”
“Of course, if this backfired and came back on me that might foul up the trial.”
“Councilman, it won’t come back on you. All I ask in return is that you keep us in mind during your next term.”
Eddie sat in the lawyer’s mess of an office in front of the mahogany desk. Green stood over him, like Eddie was in the witness box, and smoked a rancorous cigar.
“Mr. McCloskey, you were convicted of a felony, isn’t that right?”
Eddie turned to the imaginary jury on his left and pretended like he was looking Juror Number Six, a woman the same age as Alice Ketcher, in the eye. “Yes, it’s true. I was convicted of possession of illegal narcotics many years ago. I served and made early parole for good behavior. After I was released, I went through a rigorous rehab program to treat my …”
Green pointed the cigar at him and ash showered the carpet. “Say it.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Make yourself believe it.”
Eddie sighed. “After I was released, I went through a rigorous rehab program to treat my
“You have to say it like you mean it. Addiction is a disease like any other. You have to remind the jury of that fact so they’ll forgive you your sins.”
“I’ll do it on the day.”
“Do it now.”
Eddie jumped out of his chair and threw his notepad across the room. “I’ll fucking do it later. Let’s move on.”
Green eyeballed him for a long ten seconds. The lawyer puffed out a plume of smoke then waddled around his desk.
Green fell back into the role he was playing. “Mr. McCloskey, what objective evidence can you present to this Court that ghosts exist?”
“At this time, no one can agree on what constitutes objective evidence of the paranormal.”
“So the answer is none, I take it?”
“I guess the—”
“Never say I guess. Now answer the question.”
Eddie sat back down, took a deep breath. “The answer is nothing has been validated. We use a variety of methods that have only been field-tested. We amass as much evidence as we can, evaluate it, then draw tentative conclusions. The better investigators use the scientific method as their model.”
“Were you at the Ketcher residence on the night in question?”
“So how can you say it was a ghost that caused Alice to die?”
“Why’d you say it like that?
Alice to die.”
Green perched his cigar on the ashtray like it was a pigeon sitting on the rim of a birdbath. “Would you rather I say killed Alice?”
Eddie saw his point. “Fair enough. What was the question again?”
“How do you know a ghost…”
“I don’t know. I—”
Green made a buzzer-like sound. “Wrong. Never say
I don’t know
Eddie knew the guy was just trying to prepare him. All the same, he felt like punching the lawyer. “The testimony of Anson Ketcher is consistent with the physical evidence—”
“No.” The lawyer sat down. “You’re not a forensic expert. You can’t say that or the DA will completely own you.”
Eddie leaned forward. “Why don’t you save us some time and just tell me what you want me to say.”
“Eddie, that would be unethical.”
Green squinted his disapproval. “Eddie, without your credible testimony, Anson—”
“Enough, Green. You’ve explained in painful detail something a four-year-old would get. He’ll swing if I don’t come through. No fucking shit, Sherlock.”
The lawyer arched his caterpillar eyebrows, clearly offended. “I think that’s all for tonight.”
“Finally we agree on something.”
Eddie stormed out of the lawyer’s office. It was almost nine o’clock. No word on Gracie Barbitok yet, so it looked like going dark at the house was off the table for tonight. He called Giles Tyson.
“I’m coming over.”
* * * *
Giles led him to the study and pointed to a black lacquer serving tray that had a jug of ice water and two glasses. Eddie poured them both a glass and took a big sip from his. He put the glass back down and noticed the corner of a map poking out from under the tray, the legend showing.
Block letters indicated that this was a map for the cemetery that formed a peninsula around Giles’s property. Red dots peppered the map and followed no logical pattern. There were four big clusters and the rest of the dots were spread out in random fashion.
“You thinking of moving some graves out there?” Eddie said.
Giles smiled. “No. Just a little research. You look tired.”
Eddie was curious about the map but after spending a few hours with Green, Eddie didn’t want to listen to Giles go on and on about another of his arcane, unprovable theories. He looked around the room at all the bookshelves. An old volume was open to the midway mark on the coffee table next to Giles.
Eddie said, “You might be the only man who reads more than me.”
“I’m a natural speed-reader.” Giles smiled sardonically. “And I have a lot of free time on my hands these days.”
Eddie examined the book. It was open to a page with two columns of writing and a schematic of a building labeled the Wheeler Court House.
It was late. Eddie wanted to dive into his cheap bed at his cheap motel. “So you went out to their house.”
Giles smirked. “I see this is not just a social visit.”
“I wish it were, pal. I wouldn’t mind shooting the shit and talking lit all night long. But I’ve got a job and I’m up against the old battle axe herself.”
“I heard.” Giles made a face. “Alice didn’t want me to come originally. Anson had to lean on her. She was worried about what their church would say.”
Eddie sipped his drink and waited for Giles to continue.
“The first time I went was a month ago. It was behind her back. Anson thought if I found something or could think of something useful, he could tell her about it and she’d be more inclined to invite me out herself. She came home before I left though.”
“On that first trip, what did you find?”
“I felt the spirit immediately. I was hardly done shaking Anson’s hand when it came to me.”
Eddie shook his head. “Giles, it’s me you’re talking to. Not some studio audience. What really happened?”
Giles looked offended. “I’m speaking the truth. I felt her right away.”
“Oh yes, I can tell it’s a woman, which—”
Eddie called bullshit on that. “No filling in the blanks for me, Giles. All I want from you are facts then I’ll draw my own conclusions. How could you tell it was a woman?”
“You’re not a medium. I can’t explain it with words.”
“Try real hard.”
Giles stood, started pacing. “All spirits have an energy. If you’re attuned to it, you can feel when they’re around. Over the years I’ve encountered ghosts of both sexes. You get a sense of gender. It’s no different than when you hear someone coming up the stairs. You can tell if it’s a man or woman by the sound of their footsteps and how they move, without even seeing them.”
“So what happened on that first trip?”
“I got the spirit to visit.”
Eddie gave him an incredulous look. “How?”
“I just reached out to her. You know, Edward, since I split with Tim, I’ve learned a lot of things. And discovered even more.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “You just reached out to her? Giles, you’re full of shit.”
Giles motioned with his pointer at his chest. “Cross my heart. I got her to visit. She didn’t stay long.”
“Hold on. You asked her or got her? Which is it?”
The man’s eyes went wide and he shook his head quickly. “Asked her. What did I say? Did I say got her?”
“What did she do for you?”
“Not much. Really, I just felt her there.”
“What did you tell Anson?”
Giles looked down. “I told him that they had nothing to worry about. That the spirit wasn’t dangerous.”
Eddie closed his eyes and shook his head.
“This is really my fault.” Giles’s voice was suddenly thick. He wouldn’t meet Eddie’s eyes. “I was wrong about the spirit and … I should have convinced Alice to let me do more work there. She and Anson were in a bad place, and I was worried about rocking the boat so I didn’t push as much as I should have.”
“But you went out there a second time.”
“I did.” Giles paced the room excitedly. The man acted like he was still on the hunt as he recounted his adventures at the Ketcher house.
Giles stopped pacing. “It didn’t go as well as I’d planned. The spirit kept visiting then dissipating. I couldn’t get her to stay. Alice was at her wit’s end and was expecting more of me…but then I couldn’t deliver. She wanted me to get rid of the ghost. I told her I couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?”
Giles tilted his head to the side. “Wouldn’t. What right do I have to do that? And in my defense there’s no surefire way of getting rid of a spirit. I could have tried any number of things and not been successful.”
trying to get it to dissipate, what would you have done?”
“There are ways.”
“Some people use salt.”
Eddie tried not to roll his eyes.
“I like to use my life force.” Giles touched his shirt, near the belly button. “It’s stored here. We learn to harness it in martial arts. It also connects us to the other worlds.”
Eddie stood up. Giles had always been flamboyant and unorthodox, but now he was claiming to be able to summon and dispel ghosts and sense their presence without any of the traditional equipment.
“I’m calling it a night.”
* * * *
Ross stopped in the morgue on his way out the door. Han was in the attached office, reading something on his computer.
“Got any more good news for us?” Ross asked.
“My official report. Just putting the finishing touches on it.” Han punched a few keys.
Ross said, “You mind if I read over your shoulder?”
Han shook his head.
Ross stepped behind the man and bent at the waist to see the monitor. Han had filled out the standard form the medical examiners used and now appeared to be editing and revising.
“Any changes from what you told me before?” Ross’s eyes flew down the page. Most of the report was canned language that had been recycled dozens of times over.
“No. Her neck is still broken.”
Ross caught Han smiling as he cleaned up the spelling in the body of the report. The only new addition was the finding of Anson’s skin under Alice’s fingernails. It had gotten under three of the five nails on the right hand, indicating that it was no accidental or random scratch.
“Why would she scratch his right forearm with her right hand?” Ross asked.
“Because he was standing in front of her about to break her neck.”
“Yeah, but wouldn’t she have scratched his other arm most likely?”
“I don’t follow.”
“You told me he used his left arm to break her neck. If he’s standing in front of her like you think, his right hand is cupped behind her neck, right?” Ross mimicked. “Wouldn’t she have naturally struggled against his left hand?”
“He’s a southpaw. That throws everybody off.”
“She’s not a trained fighter. She wouldn’t have instinctively gone for his right hand.”
“She would if he put his right hand on her first. Which he would have done to hold her in place.”
“But she’s his wife of seven years. She knows he’s left-handed.”
“She was scared out of her mind. Her husband was trying to kill her. She wasn’t examining the situation with cold reason. The guy had a hand around the side of her throat. Quit busting my balls, Ross.”
“It’s my job to make sure we give the DA enough to get a conviction.”
“I know. I was kidding. Sort of.”
“Still doesn’t feel right to me.”
“You know, it could have been some other time during the fight.” Han finished fixing the typos. “That’s not my call to make.”
Ross re-read the report. He realized there was no mention of what hand was used to break Alice’s neck.
An alarm went off in his head. He looked at the crime tech. Han was an honest, by-the-numbers man. Ross didn’t think he’d purposely conceal anything.
“Why didn’t you make a note in here about the hand that was used?”
“I don’t know with absolute, one hundred percent certainty.” Han finally ripped his eyes away from the monitor and gave Ross a long look. “So I can’t put it in here.”
Ross read between the lines. “Okay, pal. Thanks for letting me bust your balls.”
* * * *
Instead of going to his car, Ross backtracked to Chief Towson’s office. His boss was still there. Towson was a morbidly obese man who breathed heavily just when getting up from his desk. He hardly bothered to move when Ross came in. Just shifted his bulbous eyes in Ross’s direction.