Authors: Evan Ronan
“Just talked to Han.” Ross didn’t elaborate. He just let his deadpan face do the talking.
“I’m glad to hear that.” The chief cracked his pudgy knuckles, examined his fingernails. Ross was pretty sure the guy had never worried about a manicure.
Ross and the chief had butted heads before, and Ross wouldn’t rise much higher in Towson’s ranks because of it. The best Ross could hope for was to land a job someplace else, working for a Chief of Police who shared or was closer to his philosophy.
So Ross didn’t mince any words. “This is my investigation.”
“Han reports to me. Not you. And I won’t have any unsubstantiated facts creeping into his reports.”
“He was pretty sure about the killer’s dexterity on the night.”
“That’s great. He got unsure today after I asked him some questions.”
“Why?” Ross asked.
Chief Towson looked beyond Ross. “Shut the door if you want to have this conversation.”
“I prefer to have it in the open.”
“Good for you, Sir Lancelot. Now shut the fucking door.”
Ross held the chief’s stare as long as his pride dictated, then turned and closed it behind him. “Han was certain. The killer used their left hand.”
“You mean Anson used his left hand.”
“To break your niece’s neck, yes.”
Chief Towson’s eyes narrowed. “Watch your fucking mouth.”
Ross folded his arms. He’d taken heat from Towson before. It didn’t bother him. If it did, he would have bowed out long ago, taken some shit job elsewhere.
Ross narrowed his eyes. “I’m convinced it was Anson. Your son sealed the deal with his report and the crime techs confirm it as far as they can. Nobody else was in that house. Nobody else had a motive to kill Alice. Even if they did, there’s no chance they snuck into that house and killed her while Anson was passed out for all of thirty seconds, tops. Anson’s not covering up for anybody. Why would he?”
The Chief said nothing.
“If it comes out at trial, we’ll look bad and Anson has a better chance of walking. There’s no reason to hide—”
“I’m not hiding anything, Detective. After discussing the findings with the medical examiner, Han did not feel comfortable drawing that conclusion. Let the defense make their case. We’ve got our own to make.”
“Thanks for your time, Chief.”
Ross strode out of Towson’s office and ignored everybody he passed on the way out. He didn’t open his mouth because he didn’t trust his own tongue not to get him fired. It was tough to get a decent job at another department when your last chief didn’t back you.
* * * *
Eddie stopped in the lobby and used the old computer at the motel. He searched for a few items then took his copy of Alice’s diary back to his room.
The entries were undated. Eddie skimmed through the first few. They shed some light on some of Alice’s worries, about never having enough time to get the house in order, paying the bills. She complained about a couple of members of her church but the MPAA would have given it a PG rating. No bad language and nothing too derogatory about the people she wrote of. She was almost apologetic in her scorn as if she didn’t trust her own judgment.
He found an entry about Anson:
He tries. But I wonder if people can really change. I know I should trust in the power of the Lord to help Anson find his way but still…I wonder if he’ll ever become the good man that all men can be.
That was as sacrilegious as her entries got.
Finally, he came to a note about the ghost:
Sometimes I think You sent this spirit here to test our marriage. Other times I wonder if I’m going crazy. And, I really shouldn’t write this, really shouldn’t even think it, but it makes me question my beliefs. I thought all souls went one place or another. Unless this is Hell for some.
I don’t know what else to do. I’ve prayed and prayed and it’s only getting worse. I’m sorry but I have to try something else. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me…I will pray for your forgiveness.
Tuesday morning, Eddie woke in his cheap motel room early. Since he’d stopped drinking, he’d turned into a morning person often up before six. He slipped on a t-shirt and shorts and sneakers.
The air was cool and damp for August. The motel sat on a rural route with a wide shoulder. He figured there wouldn’t be much traffic in the early morning.
He bent north at a good clip. The sun baked the air around him, and the temperature climbed during the first mile. He felt sluggish this morning but doggedly kept his pace up, waiting for the second wind to kick in.
He passed a small strip of stores and then a chain motel that looked a lot pricier than the mom and pop shit can eyesore he was staying in. He kept going.
Another half mile up the road his legs felt heavy. He’d learned to listen to his body and heed its advice, so he slowed a half-step.
Moments later, he heard quick feet slapping the pavement behind him.
The instinct was to run faster, but Eddie ignored it. He flipped a quick glance over his shoulder and saw a well-proportioned blond in her forties gaining on him. She wore a pair of runner’s shorts and a sports bra that was working overtime.
“I wasn’t sure I’d catch you,” she said.
Eddie stopped and waited for her to reach him. “Good morning, Ms. Barbitok.”
Gracie Barbitok looked forties, but Eddie knew from her online bio she was fifties. Her skin was a little loose and perhaps had been professionally tanned one shade too deep, but she was trim and looked great for her age.
“Mr. McCloskey.” She offered her hand. Her skin was soft and warm. “It’s a pleasure. I must say, I’m a fan of your work.”
She had to be referring to the big Pennsylvania job, where he’d uncovered a huge fraud. There wasn’t much else of note. If she was being honest at all.
He didn’t offer her the same compliment in response.
It didn’t faze her. “Mind if I join you?”
There was a challenge in her voice. He could tell that everything was a competition to her. This would be no friendly jog where both runners went slowly to accommodate each other.
She broke into a run and set a brisk pace. Eddie matched her and was breathing heavily in a few minutes.
“I ran New York last year,” Gracie said, pride swelling her voice.
“That’s impressive.” Eddie had no desire to prove to himself or anyone else he could run twenty-six miles in one stretch. That was for fools or Olympians. Plenty of couch potatoes could build up to running a marathon. It was easy to go that far when you plodded along at a tortoise-like thirteen minutes a mile. He valued speed and power over a forced, miserable jog.
She shrugged. “Boston is the ultimate goal, but you know how it goes. The show has hit critical mass and now the publisher wants the next book. I’m trying to fit twenty-six hours into a day.”
“We all have our crosses to bear.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, I should slow down. You probably already have a mile on me.” She took a deep breath. “I assume you’re staying at that
motel down the street?”
Eddie winked at her. “I was taking it easy on you. Didn’t want to impose.”
Gracie Barbitok laughed heartily. “Let’s get a move on then.”
She pumped her legs and flew down the shoulder of the road. Eddie hustled to keep up. They moved at a fast clip. Conversation was impossible.
They reached a long, slow bend in the street and instead of following it Gracie darted across the road and ducked through the trees. Eddie wasn’t interested in going off-road but he decided to play her game and follow her. By the time he crashed through the trees, she was well ahead of him in the forest slewing through the pines and sycamores.
He cut a sharp line through the forest and caught her in twenty seconds. As he came up alongside her, he saw how hard she was pushing. She gasped for air and her form was sloppy and her legs were unsteady on the forest floor that was covered by old dead leaves and rust-colored pine needles.
Gracie came to a stuttering halt and hugged a tree, panting like she’d just come up for air after a two minute dive. “My God this feels great.”
Eddie’s endorphins hadn’t kicked in yet so he didn’t agree. He put his hands on his thighs and gulped air. “You move well.”
“And so do you.” She coughed and turned to face him. “You should drop this, you know.”
Eddie straightened out of his crouch and put his hands on his hips. The air was fresh and cool in the woods. The early sunlight slanted through the tree limbs, barely making it to the forest floor.
Gracie said, “Like you said to that reporter after the PA job: ghosts don’t kill people.”
“Did I say that?” Eddie pretended to think about it. “You can’t believe everything you read, you know.”
“And you know it’s true. Ghosts don’t kill people. Because ghosts don’t exist.”
“And yet, over ninety percent of the people on this planet believe in a higher power.”
“Try selling that to a jury in this county and they’ll burn you at the stake.” Gracie coughed some more. “You’ve just started your career in earnest, and you take this case?”
“The difference between me and you is I’m not a hired gun, lady. Whatever I find, no matter how damaging to my client I’m gonna turn over. You’re just out for ratings and will savage anybody to get them.”
She laughed. “Spare me the knight in shining armor act. I know all about you, Eddie. You’re a recovering addict with no college degree and you work in this space because otherwise you’d be stuck in a mailroom or stocking the shelves at the local grocery.”
Eddie smiled ironically. His last gig, before he’d resurrected this career, was working at a grocery store.
Gracie shook her head. “I feel bad for you, Eddie. Despite your checkered past, I think you have a good head on your shoulders. That was a good job you did in Pennsylvania. But here you made a bad business decision and now you’re stuck with it. I’ll give you a little professional advice: never mix business and friendship. I know Giles called in a favor. You let that cloud your judgment.”
Eddie hated how right she was. “Let me ask you a question. I don’t think you’ll give me a straight answer but I’ll ask anyway because the cameras aren’t rolling.”
She twisted her torso this way and that to work out the kinks. Her breathing was almost back to normal. “Go ahead.”
“How much of a fraud were you?”
She stopped, mid-calisthenic. “What the hell did you just say?”
“Before you turned over that new leaf and cried foul on all your colleagues and got rich and famous. Were you a fraud the whole way, or just part of the way?”
She didn’t answer. Just gave him one of those up-from-under looks. “There are no real psychics. I figured a man as intelligent as you would know that, Eddie.”
All professed psychics were con artists. Maybe one in a thousand had any real ability from what Eddie had seen, but even these still resorted to tricks and guile to put on the show and separate the gullibles from their money.
“Reason I ask, I don’t know what’s worse. If you really were part-psychic and then switched sides. Of if you were just faking your way through it the whole time like you say you were. The latter is pretty bad, but people can forgive you because now you’re looking out for them and fighting the good fight. But if it was the former, then that means you’re still a fraud, going the other way. Just capitalizing on public perception instead of truth.”
If she could have hissed, she would have. But such a primal response had been trained out of her by years of marketing experts and handlers and practiced out of her by dozens of canned interviews and hundreds of live-television studio audiences.
Instead she screwed her face up into an ersatz smile, one that was almost good enough to fool him. “I wanted to head over to the Ketcher residence around six this evening. My people will be in touch with yours to confirm.”
Before she could turn and run off into the woods, Eddie said, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. I have an appointment at six. I wanted to get over there this morning at nine, and then again at midnight tonight.”
She shook her head. “Impossible. My team and I have other work to do before then.”
“I don’t give a shit if you can’t handle your case load. That’s not my problem. We’re here for a murder trial so that takes priority, not your bullshit ratings.”
“Not for other projects, Eddie. We have to do background
on this one
. You’ve been on the ground a whole day but we just got in late last night.”
Eddie smiled. “You were in the area by nine-thirty last night.”
He saw Gracie trying to think up a lie.
“It wasn’t hard to find out.” Eddie kept that smile in place. “You leave quite an electronic footprint.”
“When you get to prime time, that’s what happens.”
“You can’t bullshit me, Gracie.” Eddie stopped smiling. “We could have gone dark last night. But you played it safe and kept me away.”
The smallest flicker of surprise flashed in her eyes. She quickly composed herself.
Eddie said, “A man’s life hangs in the balance. The least you could do is give him a fair shake.”
life hangs in the balance.”
Eddie went on. “You know how difficult it is to reproduce phenomena even in the most haunted of places. In all fairness, you know I should get a few shots at the house. Unless of course you’re worried that I’ll actually find something.”
She took a deep breath and that media smile returned. She knew exactly what he was doing. Her pride and her desire to win by any means warred. In the end, Eddie knew her cocksure attitude would win out. Gracie Barbitok didn’t want to just win. She wanted to crush her opposition. She knew if Eddie got multiple opportunities at the house and didn’t find anything, the absence of evidence would be all the more damning. She would have his head on a platter.
Of course, the more chances he got the more likely he’d find something. It was still a long shot but Eddie was playing her vanity off against her professionalism. There was no training that cardinal sin out of some people.
“I’ll see you at nine. Don’t be late.”
She took off into the woods faster than a spooked deer.
* * * *
After the run, Eddie showered quickly and put on a polo shirt and khakis. He made sure he had all his equipment, new batteries, and clean tapes for the digital recorder. Then he called Green.
“Did you get a look at the Ketchers’ internet history yet?” Eddie asked.
“Yes. Nothing on there about psychics.”
“Did Anson ever say anything about a psychic to you?”
“No. You gonna tell me what this is about?”
Damn. He’d been expecting to find something on the computer. Hoping to was more like it.
“It was just a hunch. I’m headed over to the Ketcher house at nine, meeting Gracie there.”
“Jesus, Eddie! I need more than an hour’s notice! I’ll meet you there. Be ready. The DA will be there too.”
Eddie smiled. Everything was always an emergency to a lawyer. “I plan on going out there tonight also but we’ll see what happens this morning.”
They hung up. Eddie was about to get in his car but stopped himself. The computer search hadn’t turned up anything, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. He backtracked to the motel office.
The manager was a fifty-something smoker with a bald patch nestled among grey hair. He was watching some game show on a TV hidden from Eddie’s view.
Eddie asked him for a phone book.
“It’s a few years old,” the manager said. “They stopped giving them away.”
“That’s okay. It’ll still help.”
The manager grunted something unintelligible then disappeared in the back. Eddie really needed to invest in a new laptop. The one he’d accepted as a gift from Stan was five years old, or a hundred and five in computer years. It had crapped out not long after he’d started using it.
The manager returned carrying the phone book. He pointed to the year on the spine of the book. “Told you.”
It was three years old but looked brand new.
“Thanks, I’ll give it right back,” Eddie said.
“Might as well just keep it.” The manager made a dismissive, guttural sound and went back to watching his game shows and turned the volume way up to discourage further conversation.
Eddie sat in the one guest chair in the dingy reception area and flipped to the P section of the phone book. He scrolled through till he found a dozen listings for psychics.
Nine of them were for 800 numbers. The other three had regular area codes and gave addresses. Eddie went back up to the front desk and signaled at the manager.
The manager didn’t turn down the volume, didn’t turn in his chair. Just swiveled his mean eyes around to Eddie. “You can just leave the book there.”
“I wonder if you could help me with something.”