“Get me to the church on time.”
Although I was expecting a call from a client this Friday morning, things had been slow for the Randall Detective Agency lately, so slow I actually called Jordan Finley at the Parkland Police Department. I’d been reading about the mysterious disappearance of elderly Viola Mitchell. What interested me about Viola’s case was her connection to the Parkland Little Theater. According to the newspaper, she was a regular performer and well-known for her character roles.
“We do not need your help, Randall.”
Jordan’s standard reply. The trouble is, I usually end up being a lot of help, and Jordan really hates that. I was pretty sure his stiff black hair was bristling. “Just answer one question. Did she disappear from the theater?”
“No, and why is that your concern?”
“Camden’s going to be in their next show, and Kary’s playing in the orchestra. If there’s a Bermuda Triangle backstage, I want to know about it.” Camden’s psychic ability guarantees he’ll be a lightning rod for anything remotely weird, and Kary’s insistence on helping with my cases will have her burrowing into whatever dark corner she can find.
“Nothing happened at the theater. She was last seen at her home. A neighbor heard the animals and went over to see what was going on. They hadn’t been fed. The neighbor said Mrs. Mitchell would never neglect her pets, and that’s when we started looking for her.”
“Let me in on this. Missing people are my specialty.”
“No, getting in my way is your specialty, and it’s not going to happen today.”
On this, Jordan hung up. I was not deterred. I went back to the Parkland Herald’s account of Viola Mitchell’s disappearance and found her address. It wouldn’t do any harm to wander over there and see what was going on. Jordan could complain all he liked, but the last time I looked, Parkland, North Carolina, was a free city, and I could roam about the streets as I pleased. Camden could come with me to talk to the neighbors. People always talk to him because he looks completely harmless. What they don’t know is his psychic insights could be very useful in my investigations. If I could unscramble the visions.
My cell phone rang. It was my client, Mrs. Folly Harper. Her voice was light and feathery. “Sorry, Mr. Randall, but I’m running a little late. Could we make it three-thirty?”
“Let me check my schedule.” I counted slowly to five. “You’re in luck, Mrs. Harper. I can fit you in then.”
“Thank you. Now, what was your address again?”
“It’s 302 Grace Street. A large yellow house with white trim and pink azaleas.”
“I’ll be there at three-thirty.”
“I’ll see you then.” This was the third time she’d changed the appointment. I was beginning to think that whatever she needed found, I could find. She sounded like the type of woman whose missing glasses are on top of her head.
Yep, whatever was missing, I could find, all right, because I was so damn good at finding everything except when it counted the most.
This time of day was usually quiet in the neighborhood. Even the busy traffic on Food Row one street over was muted, a soft murmur of white noise. Birds chirped at the feeder and rustled in the branches of the oak trees. A slight warm breeze billowed the sheer curtains at my open office window.
But the peace was shattered as I heard Ellin’s voice rising in one of her classic scolds. I turned my chair around to the window. My office has a good view of the front porch and the old oak trees that keep everything cool and shady. Ellin Belton, Camden’s fiancée, was on the porch talking with him. He was, no doubt, in his favorite seat, the porch swing, and she was—as everyone in the neighborhood could probably hear—engaged in her ongoing and futile effort to pry Camden from 302 Grace Street.
“If you would just consider it, Cam. We could live in my condo until I sell it. I know I can get top dollar. We could afford a new house anywhere in the city.”
“Ellie, I’ve told you over and over, I’m not going to move.” “But this house is falling down! It needs constant repair.” “And I enjoy fixing it.”
She paced by my window. “But what about this constant stream of boarders moving in and out? There’s Rufus and Angie and grumpy old Fred and Randall and Kary and who knows who else you’ll let in. How can we ever have any privacy?”
“I told you I’d remodel the third floor any way you wanted it.” “We need a place of our own.”
“This is our place.”
“But these people!” She made an exasperated growling sound not unlike a lioness who does not want to share the gazelle. Then she checked her watch and rolled her eyes.“I’ve got to meet with the caterer, and Mother said my sisters might pop in for a surprise visit. That’s all I need. I know they’re planning something stupid and disruptive. We’ll continue this discussion later.”
“I’m not going to change my mind.” “Neither am I!”
By rolling closer to the window, I glimpsed her blond curls bouncing indignantly as she charged out to her sleek silver Lexus. She looks really good going away. She has a dynamite figure, plus big blue eyes and a great smile. But I’m rarely on the receiving end of that smile, and Camden, gripping the edge of the porch railing, didn’t look like he was smiling, either. He’d recently proposed, Ellin had accepted, and everything had been hearts and rainbows for about a week. Then reality set in. Because of Ellin’s work schedule and her lifetime goal of controlling the world, she’d decided they would be married by the end of May—this month—so the past two months she’d been, as our resident redneck boarder, Rufus Jackson, would say, “Wild as a buck.”
I left my office and went across the foyer and through “the island” to the kitchen. We call the main sitting area in the house “the island” because the blue armchair, green corduroy sofa, and other various chairs are parked in the middle of the room on a worn oriental carpet, as if someone had called a meeting of the living room furniture. The TV is there, as well as a coffee table covered with books, magazines, and a stack of coupons held in place by a paperweight shaped like a pear. There’s always a scattering of cat toys even though Cindy, our gray housecat, usually amuses herself with an empty toilet paper roll. Kary’s needlework is piled in a basket by one chair, and Camden’s growing collec- tion of UFO materials sits by another. Mismatched lamps and cushions complete the gypsy caravan look.
I got a can of Coke out of the fridge. Camden came in a few minutes later and put two Pop-Tarts in the toaster with a little more force than necessary.
“I don’t know why the hell we just don’t elope.”
I popped open the Coke and took a sip. “It’s never too late. Sling her over your shoulder and head for the border. You know she loves that cave man stuff.”
“Her mother would hunt me down and kill me.”
If he wants to know what Ellin’s going to look like in thirty years, all he has to do is eyeball her mom. Ellin looks exactly like Jean, only Mrs. Belton is shorter, stouter, and lightly wrinkled. Lately, I had seen far more of Ellin’s mother than I ever wanted to see. She isn’t really sure Camden’s a suitable husband for her daughter, but then, who would be? Ellin’s father, a reasonable sort of man, did a lot of sighing as he handed over credit cards and checks. He’d indicated to Camden he’d be glad to see Ellin married to anyone willing to put up with her moods. Ellin’s sisters were already married and living out of town, but they’d be here for the wedding in full force. Four Belton women in one place. I wasn’t sure the ozone layer was ready for this.
I took another sip of Coke. “Mom still hasn’t given her seal of approval?”
“I think Mom is a little afraid of me.”
“Well, she should be. You are damned scary.” This is a laugh. Camden’s about five-foot seven and looks like somebody’s sloppy little kid brother. His pale hair is always in his eyes and he dresses like a starving artist. It’s the eyes that get the girls. They’re large and blue and they See All, no joke. If he shakes hands with someone, or touches an object, he can get powerful impressions. This psychic ability is mighty attractive to Ellin, who has no psychic powers at all, but to Mrs. Belton, it’s all about “my weird son-in-law, the fortune-teller.”
The Pop-Tarts popped up, and Camden put them on a plate. “Jean thinks Ellin should marry Reg.”
“Reg Haverson? Mr. Prep?”
“At least he doesn’t have fits.” He got the tea out of the fridge and poured some into a large plastic Carolina Panthers cup.
“Is that what she calls it?” “And he has a proper job.”
“She doesn’t think being a part-time sales clerk at Tamara’s Boutique is a proper job? She should be thinking about all those employee discounts she and Ellin can get.”
We wandered back to the porch. On the way, Camden peered into my office. “Don’t you have a client?”
“She’s coming by later.” I sat down in one of the rocking chairs. “You and Ellin get anything settled?”
He sat back in the porch swing and took a bite of Pop-Tart. They’re the brown sugar kind, appropriate, he assures me, for any hour of the day. “Well, let’s see. I wanted to be married in Victory Holiness, but I’ve agreed to Ellie’s choice of Parkland Methodist. Ellie found her wedding gown, but she’s still working on the type of flowers and the music. She keeps changing her mind about bridesmaids. I think she’s finally settled on four.”
“She has four friends?”
“The invitations spelled her name “E-l-l-e-n,” God forbid, so they had to be redone. The church hall had to be rescheduled for the reception. And I haven’t even mentioned the cake, the rehearsal dinner, or the photographer.”
“Wow. I can’t believe I went through all that two times. Of course, all I had to do was show up.”
“And she doesn’t want to live here.”
“I believe I may have heard something about that.”
“She said we’d never have any privacy. I said we have the whole top floor to ourselves. She said we need a place of our own. I said this is our place. Then she said, ‘But these people!’” He did a fairly accurate impersonation of Ellin’s exasperated tone.
I joined in. “Not these people!”
The odd collection of tenants Camden attracts is his family and he isn’t going to abandon them. I think he took over the big three-story house for the express purpose of filling it with strays. That includes me. If I trace my path backwards, I can see the chain of events that led me to 302 Grace Street—the car crash that destroyed my perfect little American dream, the argument with my second wife that cast me adrift, a tenant moving out, leaving the downstairs room free for an office and an upstairs room free for a bedroom, the odd cases that kept me financially afloat. I’d come in as one of Camden’s strays, and like so many before me, I’d stayed.
I often stand on the porch and think, what the hell are you doing here? Then I think, because if you can possibly keep from screwing things up, you have found a new family and a new chance for love, if you can convince Kary of that. And I’m not giving up my peaceful green second-floor bedroom, my conveniently located office, my favorite faded blue armchair, and being in the same house as Kary Ingram, especially not to please Ellin Belton. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s settled,” Camden said. “Her place is too small. This house is perfect. The neighborhood’s quiet, lots of big trees, she can get to work easily off of Food Row, she knows everybody here. What’s the problem?”
“Did she bring up all the times I drag you into these cases to help solve them for me?”
“Once or twice.”
As if she never uses his considerable psychic talent to further her goals with the slightly off-the-level Psychic Service. “You know she’s much more likely to drag you.”
“How could the two of you afford a new house, anyway?” Fortunately, 302 Grace is paid for. When Camden first came to North Carolina, he’d stayed in the boarding house. After he saw something in the owner’s future that saved him from financial ruin, the man gave Camden the house. Getting a big old house that always needs repair may not have been a bargain, but, as I said, it’s paid for. “Ellin’s still producing the TV show, right? But it doesn’t bring in the big bucks, does it?”
“It’s doing surprisingly well.” “Even without you.”
“Even without me.”
Ellin is always after him to be on one of the programs, but he hates to do anything that even halfway resembles flaunting his talent. “You could be raking in the dough.”
“No, thanks. Things have been very calm lately, and that’s the way I want them.”
“So all is well with the cosmos?”
He nodded and took another bite of Pop-Tart. “Just get me to the church on time.”
“Well, before all that, I want you to come to Marshall Street and talk with Viola Mitchell’s neighbors. She’s still missing.”
He frowned in concern. “Viola’s missing?”
“You haven’t gotten any vibes about that? Has anyone from the theater stopped by to check on her? Is she likely to wander off?” “A member of the cast said he thought she was visiting a cousin. She wasn’t needed for every rehearsal, so she could leave town for a few days.”
“Somebody filed a missing persons report. I want to see what’s going on.”
“I definitely want to come along. Let me check on Fred first.
He hasn’t been feeling well lately.”
“How can you tell?” Fred, Camden’s oldest tenant, gacks and wheezes like a rusty air-conditioner, has skin the color of old liver, and maybe three sprigs of hair growing from unlikely places.
“He hasn’t asked me for any money today.”
Camden finished his nutritious snack, went down the porch steps, and headed in the direction of the park. Fred spent most of the day with several other old fossils hunched over checkerboards and drinking out of paper bags. The only good thing about Fred is he doesn’t hang around the house. I’m all for local color, but this would be laying it on too thick. The sight of moldy old Fred draped across the porch railing might discourage clients.
Camden came back and reported all was well with Fred, so we got into my white ’67 Plymouth Fury, a dashing choice for an ace private investigator, and drove over to 494 Marshall Street. There was a “For Sale” sign in Viola’s front yard with a big red “SOLD” sign pasted over it. The small brick houses were spaced widely apart, but the next-door neighbor knew everything that had happened. She was a thin woman with a permanently alarmed expression.
“Wednesday, I heard the awfullest racket, and it was all of Viola’s pets going wild. I went over there and gave them some food and water, and I didn’t see Viola anywhere. The same thing happened Thursday, so that’s when I called the police.”
“You didn’t see anyone else at her house?” I asked.
“No, but she never did have many visitors. Kept to herself mostly. Her only friends were those theater people. She didn’t drive, and I didn’t see any strange cars at her place. Mostly she took a taxi if she wanted to go anywhere, or somebody from the theater would give her a ride home.”
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“A couple of days ago. She came out to get her mail the same time as me, and I gave her a little wave.”
“When did she put up her house for sale?”
“About a month ago. She’s moving to a condo at Silver Hills.” “No family? Nobody she’d go visit?”
“I heard her mention a cousin once.”
I could hear cheeping sounds from the house. “What about her pets? Can she have them at Silver Hills?”
“Yes, that was why she chose that place. She has cats and birds and some kind of lizard.”
“Does Viola have any health issues? Any sort of condition that might have caused her to wander off?”
“Oh, no. She’s sharp as a tack.”
“Would you say she was friends with everyone here in the neighborhood?”
“Like I said, she kept to herself, but she never was mean to anyone. Nobody would have cause to harm her.”
I’d heard that before. “Would you let us look around her house?”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
Camden didn’t have to pretend to be concerned. “Ma’am, Viola and I work together at the theater, and I’m really worried about her. I promise we won’t disturb anything.”
Not many women can resist the appeal in those big blue eyes. “All right. But just for a few minutes.”
The neighbor took a key from a hook inside her door, and we walked across to Viola’s house. As we entered, we were met by a chorus of cheeps and squawks. There were three birdcages in the living room. In one cage, two little blue budgies scooted back and forth on their perch. In another, a large green parrot cocked his head as if giving us close inspection. The third cage was occupied by two small gray birds. There was also a glass cage where a bored-looking lizard sunned himself under a light bulb. Three striped cats ran out and immediately coiled around Camden’s legs, purring furiously.
The neighbor tried to shoo them away. “Oh, every time someone comes in they think they’re getting more food. You’ve already been fed today, all of you. Let me check your water dish.”
She went down the hall to the kitchen. Two of the cats trotted after her, but the third stayed a moment longer, his yellow eyes staring at Camden.
“Uh, oh,” he said.
Cam tells me he can get impressions from animals when they let him. “Are they telling you something?”
“This isn’t good, Randall. I need to talk to Jordan.” “Let me have a look around first.”
I knew Viola was in her seventies, so to find her bedroom as frilly and pink as a teenage girl’s was a surprise. Framed posters for plays decorated the walls, along with fancy wide-brimmed hats and scarves she must have used for costumes. Her dressing table was also pink with an array of perfume bottles and paperweights, all shaped like hearts. The rest of the house was devoted to her pets. All the furniture was covered with blankets or towels. I counted six different cat beds, three scratching posts, a playhouse, window seats, and enough cat toys to fill two large plastic containers. The cat food in the kitchen could’ve supplied a cat army, and large bags of birdseed were stacked in the pantry.
The neighbor waited by the door, arms folded. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got errands to run.”
She locked the door as we left the house. I thanked her for her help, and as soon as she was back in her own house, I called Jordan.
“Camden thinks he has something on Viola Mitchell.”
I was pretty sure I heard Jordan’s veins pop. “What the hell are you doing? I told you that was not your business.”
“You want to hear it or not?” “Put him on.”
I handed my phone to Camden. “Jordan, you need to check the basement.” Jordan must have answered, “We already did,” because Camden said, “Check it again.” He returned my phone for the cop’s warning.
“This had better be good, Randall.” “You know it is.”
“Where are you?”
“At her house.” “Damn it.”
“Camden was concerned about her. They’re doing a play together.”
“That is the flimsiest excuse you’ve ever come up with. If you’ve contaminated a crime scene—”
“You’ve been in her house, right? Every inch is contaminated by some kind of animal.”
“Don’t touch anything else. I’m coming over.”
In ten minutes, a squad car pulled up and Jordan got out. A second squad car parked behind. A charging rhino would have second thoughts about confronting Jordan when he was in one of his thunderous moods. He whipped off his sunglasses, his squinting eyes blue chips of fire.
“One of these days I’ll have your license, Randall, and when I do, I’ll make you eat it.”
“You’re just jealous because I have a clue.”
“No, you have Cam, and you know how I feel about you dragging him into these situations.”
“He didn’t drag me,” Camden said. “I wanted to come check on Viola.”
Jordan’s little eyes narrowed even further. “And you think she’s in the basement?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What tipped you off?” “The cats.”
Jordan paused. “I’m not even going to ask.”
It took twenty-five minutes for the policemen to find Viola Mitchell’s body buried under the basement floor. By the time the coroner arrived and the ambulance, all the neighbors had come out to see what was going on. Their curious voices turned to gasps and little cries of “Oh, my God” and “What happened?” as the EMTs carefully lifted a body bag onto a stretcher. Camden steadied himself against the Fury. The neighbor who’d let us into Viola’s house stared in horror.
“I can’t believe this! You mean all that time I was in there taking care of her pets, she was lying dead underneath the house? Who would do such a thing?”
Jordan assured her that in light of this new development, the police would question everyone again. He cut his eyes at me. “The police and only the police are handling this investigation. Does everyone understand?”
“Can I have a look in the basement?” Camden asked. “After we’ve finished.”
Camden and I watched Jordan explain to the neighbors that it appeared Viola was the victim of a homicide, so anyone with any information should come forward. He reminded them that Viola’s house was now a crime scene and to stay off the premises. From their stunned expressions none of them wanted to be anywhere near the house.
Camden looked queasy. “Are you sure you want to go down there?” I asked.
“I want in on this.” I glanced over to where the neighbor woman was being questioned by an officer. “Maybe she knows how to get in touch with Viola’s cousin?”
“Someone at the theater might know.”
After a while, Jordan motioned us over. We went back into the house and down a flight of stairs to the basement, a large unfinished room that ran the length of the house. The space was cold and smelled of dust and stone. Part of the floor was concrete, but another section was smoothly packed gray dirt or had been until the police dug it up to discover Viola’s body. Camden slowly moved around the hole. The murderer must have planned to bury Viola here because the makeshift grave was neatly squared.
“How tall was Viola?” I asked. “Almost as tall as you.”
“So the murderer knew what size the hole had to be and had plenty of time to dig it.”
“And knew Viola lived by herself and rarely had company.
He or she wouldn’t have been disturbed.”
Jordan watched him warily. “You’re not sensing anybody else in there, are you?”
Camden stooped down and felt the floor. “Something in the wine.”
“Poison?” “A present.”
Jordan turned to one of his men. “Check the trashcans. The bottle might still be there.”
“A present from a friend. A card. Congratulations. You Deserve It.” I felt sudden chills. “That could be taken several ways.” Camden shook off whatever he’d been seeing and stood up.
“She was already dead when she was brought down here.” “Any impressions about the killer?”
“He’s all covered up. I can’t get anything.” “Covered up? Black clothes? A mask?” Camden rubbed his eyes. “I can’t tell. Sorry.”
“We’ll take it from here.” Jordan pointed. “You two go home.”