Mixed Signals: A Grace Street Mystery #2

Mixed Signals: A Grace Street Mystery #2

It’s Christmas in Parkland, North Carolina, and PI David Randall is looking forward to his mother’s visit, even though he knows she’ll want to talk about his daughter, Lindsey, who ...

About The Author

Jane Tesh

Jane Tesh is a retired media specialist and pianist for the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. She ...

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Chapter One

“Behold, I Tell You a Mystery”

 

It’s a good thing Handel’s already dead, because if he weren’t, I’d have to kill him. I’d heard Camden practice singing “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” his solo for the Parkland City Chorale’s Christmas concert of “Messiah,” until I thought I might have to kill him, too. He sings really well, but talk about monotonous! Handel must have enjoyed seeing how much he could cram into a song. Maybe he was paid by the note.

So I was relieved that evening when Camden stopped singing. He paused at my office door, toolbox in hand, and asked me if I’d take him by his friend Jared’s house.

“Thought you’d finished those cabinets.”

“I have one more door to put on. It won’t take me five minutes. You can wait, or Jared can bring me home.”

“I’ll wait.”

I obligingly turned my ’67 Fury toward Jared Hunter’s neighborhood. When I pulled up in front of the small brick house, Camden frowned at the dark windows.

“Is he home?” I asked.

“There’s a light on in the garage.”

He got out of the car and went toward the open garage where Jared kept a fine 1959 blue and white Marlin. I yawned and then drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, annoyed to find I still had the tune and rhythm of “Every Valley” in my head. I was considering which of my many New Black Eagle Jazz Band CDs to play when the music abruptly slid into a strange minor key, horns blaring, violins shrieking. I felt a sensation of panic from somewhere in my brain, panic that wasn’t coming from me. I was already running for the garage when I heard Camden’s voice full of horror.

“Oh, my God. Randall! Randall, come here.”

I ran to the garage and stopped. Jared Hunter lay in a pool of blood in front of his washer and dryer, a pile of laundry scattered across the floor. It looked as if he’d been stabbed several times. For a few moments, I couldn’t move, my brain trying to process what I was seeing. I’ve seen some bad things in my time, but the crumpled body and the stark red blood splattered against the white floor and colorful towels was so horrible I had to take a few quick panic breaths to keep myself upright. There didn’t seem to be a chance in hell the man was still alive, but I leaned down and carefully checked for a pulse in his wrist.

“I’m sorry, Camden.”

He was holding onto the car, his face chalk white and his eyes glazed over. I couldn’t begin to imagine what visions he was seeing. “No,” he said, shaking. “No.”

As I punched nine-one-one on my cell phone, I heard a thump from somewhere in the house, and a noise that sounded like a door slamming shut. I ran out of the garage and around to the front of the house, my angry private detective self wanting to catch the murderer and my sensible self screaming that a killer with a knife could be planning to attack again. But I couldn’t see anything. For the moment, both Camden and I were completely in the dark.

Well, this was going to be one hell of a Christmas.

# # #

If the killer had been hiding in the house, by the time the police came and searched the area, he or she was gone. Officer Jordan Finley was one of the first to arrive. He usually warns me away from crime scenes, but when he realized Jared Hunter was a friend of Camden’s, he agreed to let us stay.

“Don’t touch anything,” he said to me, as if I didn’t know this. The coroner finished his examination and the EMS team took Jared’s body to the ambulance. I had managed to calm my breathing, but Camden sat on the ground, trying to control the tremors that still shook him. I told him several times I’d take him home, but he said no. After a while he got up and slowly crossed the garage to the dryer. One of Jordan’s colleagues started to stop him, but Jordan said, “It’s all right.”

Camden put his hands on the dryer as if to steady himself. He was trembling, and his blue eyes were an odd murky color. “If I can get past the blood—”

“Try the car,” I said.

The blue and white Marlin sat gleaming the in the half-light. Despite the lingering smell of blood, I smelled car polish and something sweet, like auto air freshener. Camden moved over to the Marlin and put his hands on the hood.

“Anything?”

“It’s not the car. Someone came by.” “What did they want?”

“They’re angry, frustrated.” He shuddered. “I want to look in the house.”

I glanced at Jordan, and he nodded. Even though he can’t officially use psychic evidence, Jordan’s found Camden’s talent useful in the past.

Inside Jared’s house, the furniture was unremarkable, the curtains plain beige, the carpet a dreary gray. The bedroom and bathroom were also very plain, with nothing out of place. In the living room, an entertainment center took up one wall. A few framed photographs hung on the opposite wall. One picture showed Jared with a tall black woman. She stood with one arm draped around his shoulders.

“Who’s this?” I asked.

“Alycia Ward, a friend of Jared’s,” Camden said.

Alycia was wearing an elaborate charm bracelet, large gold earrings, and a nose ring. “Looks like an expensive gal.”

“Jared was always buying her jewelry.”

“Are they engaged? Maybe they had a quarrel.” “No, they’re just friends.”

In my experience there’s often more to “just friends.” “And these guys?” A row of grinning men stood in front of the Marlin and a 67 Mustang.

“The guys at Jared’s auto club.”

There was a photograph of Jared, Alycia, and somebody dressed in a green monster costume. “Halloween?”

Camden took a closer look. “Comic convention.”

“What’s this guy supposed to be, the Incredible Hulk? Who is he, do you know?”

“It’s probably Boyd Taylor. He went to a couple of conven- tions with us.”

Jordan had been taking notes. “Alycia Ward, Boyd   Taylor.

Anyone else?”

Abruptly, Camden sat down on the sofa and put his head in his hands. “Oh, my God. Terracon’s next week. Jared wanted to go. I forgot to tell him.”

Jordan gave me an anxious look. “It’s okay, Cam.”

He pushed his pale hair out of his eyes. “I can’t think right now. I came over to fix his cabinets. He’d been wanting cabinets in the garage. I was almost through—”

“Cam, you need to go home. We’ll take care of this.”

“The blood—I wish I could see something useful! I have no idea who’d want to kill Jared.”

“I’ll keep you posted on how the investigation is going.” Jordan pointed his pencil at me. “You, however, are going to keep out of this.”

“Somebody kills one of Camden’s friends, and you want me to back off? I don’t think so.”

“Both of you are way too close to this. Let me handle it.”

I started to argue and then reconsidered. I already had two starting places: Alycia Ward and Boyd Taylor, plus whatever else Camden could tell me about Jared and his activities. With or without Jordan’s approval, I was going to work this case.

# # #

I took Camden home. 302 Grace Street is Camden’s old three story boarding house in what used to be Parkland’s wealthiest neighborhood. Tenants come and go, but for now, 302 Grace was home to a huge bawdy couple named Rufus Jackson and Angie Dawson, Fred Mullins, World’s Grumpiest Old Man, and Kary Ingram, my soul mate, if I can ever convince her of that. Since October, the house, to my surprise, had become my home as well, and the office for my detective agency.

Rufus and Angie had gone to her sister’s for the holidays, Fred was already in bed, and Kary was playing piano for a Christmas party, so the house was quiet. Before beginning my investigation, I parked Camden in the living room. We call the sitting area in the middle of the room “the island” because it’s filled with mis- matched but comfortable cushions and chairs from many lands and many time periods, including my favorite, a big faded blue arm chair that had been a recliner in a past life. Kary likes a little rocking chair with red cushions and keeps a basket filled with yarn next to the coffee table, which is piled with magazines and coupons held in place by a pear-shaped paperweight. Camden’s usual place is on the green corduroy sofa. I settled him with a big glass of sweet tea and a couple of brown sugar Pop-Tarts, and then I went across the foyer to my office, which is located in what used to be a parlor.

I sat down behind my desk and clicked open my search program. My mind was still whirring, and I felt as if I’d run a marathon. I had to do something, anything to block out the picture of Jared. I put in “Alycia Ward” and hit “Search.” A long list came up. I waded through this for a while, and then got up for a drink. After the nightmare in the garage, it was jarring to see the Christmas tree beaming by one of the front windows. I replaced an ornament that Cindy, our gray cat, had dislodged and then walked around the island past Kary’s old upright piano in the corner and the bookshelves flanked by large potted plants.  In the back bay window across from the dining room table and chairs Cindy sat watching moths bounce off the outside light. Camden was in the kitchen washing dishes, which is his fallback plan whenever he needs some down time. I took one of the stools at the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room. “Anything else you can tell me about Alycia or Boyd?”

“They didn’t do it.” “Are you sure?”

“As sure as I can be. I’m trying not to think of anything right now.”

“Did you call Ellin?”

Ellin Belton is the woman Camden says he loves, which makes me question his sanity. She doesn’t have a scrap of psychic ability, but Camden says holding her hand helps him erase the worst visions.

“No. There’s no need to bother her with this.”

I glanced at the cow-shaped clock above the sink. “It’s almost ten thirty. Why don’t you call it a day?”

“I’m afraid of what I’ll dream.”

I knew what he meant. In the past, there had been some nights I forced myself to stay awake. Fortunately, the nightmares of the car crash and my futile attempts to find my little daughter were fading, thanks to one particularly good dream of her he’d helped me see.

He wiped his hands on a dish towel. His hands were still shak- ing. “This is going to be nice and cheery for your mom’s visit.” I usually make the trip to Florida for Christmas. This year, Mom decided to spend the holiday with us. I’d told her a little bit about my new situation. I knew she was curious to see for herself. “Too late to cancel those plans. She’ll understand. Hand me a Coke, will you? Maybe there’s something mindless on TV tonight.”

We went back to the island and channel surfed until we found “The Beast of Yucca Flats.”

“Perfect,” I said. “That’ll put you to sleep.”

But neither one of us could sleep. We stayed up, willing our- selves to watch so we wouldn’t have to think. Finally  Camden dropped off from sheer exhaustion. I dozed in the arm chair until after two and then went up to my room. The shock was wearing off, replaced by anger. Jordan had better hope he found Jared’s killer before I did.

# # #

The next morning, I got up later than I planned. Camden said he was all right, so I took him to Tamara’s Boutique in Friendly Shopping Center where he works part time as a sales clerk. It’s not a stressful job, which he says is perfect. He definitely didn’t need any more stress.

I parked the Fury in front of Tamara’s. In the window, large gold and silver ornaments rotated slowly around mannequins in what I’m sure were very stylish Christmas colors of neon pink and green. “I missed seeing Kary this morning. Did you tell her what happened?”

“I told her Jared had been killed. I didn’t go into any details.” “Anyone or anything else you can think of? Any helpful insights into what Jared had that the killer wanted?”

“No.” His eyes were back to their normal blue. “This is a stupid, useless talent.”

Ordinarily I would say something like, “I think you should brood today and mope around the store,” but I cut him some slack. “Give me a call if you want to go home.”

“Thanks.” He was also thanking me for holding back on the snide comments.

“You said Jared was always buying Alycia jewelry. Wal-Mart specials, or did he spring for the good stuff?” My search program had found plenty of Alycia, Alicia, Aleeshia, and Aleisha Wards in town, but none fit the description of the woman in the photograph.

“The good stuff, usually.”

# # #

I drove downtown to Royalle’s Fine Jewelry in Old Parkland, the historic section of Parkland, to talk to my friend, Petey Royalle. If I was really lucky, Jared did his shopping at Royalle’s.

Things did not look very lucky at the jewelry store. A police car was parked out front. I greeted the officer as he came out of the store, and met Petey at the door.

“What’s going on?”

“Somebody helping themselves to an early Christmas.” Petey Royalle was glum. He’s a trim man in his thirties with a shiny round bald head and brown eyes behind thick glasses. “We had a break in last night. The thief took several expensive bracelets and a tray of emerald and sapphire rings.”

“What about your alarm system?”

“Disconnected. I don’t know how the hell the thief knew where it was.”

All of the buildings in Old Parkland are at least seventy-five years old. Royalle’s Fine Jewelry is in a large three-story building, and Petey explained that the older wiring system made it difficult to install a regular alarm, so he’d kept the original one. He took me down a hallway to the back of the store and showed me the control box, hidden behind a secret panel.

“I’m the only one who knows this. Now that you know, I’ll have to kill you. See where the wire’s been cut? Somebody knew exactly what to do.”

“You’ve never shown it to an employee, an insurance man, a repair man?”

“No one.”

“Who installed it?”

“As I said, it’s been here for years, and it works, so I never had to call anyone. The few times it’s broken, I’ve been able to repair it.”

I looked on the box. “Winthrop, Incorporated” was imprinted in black letters. “Quality Merchandise.” “Maybe somebody at Winthrop decided to come in and look around.”

“Maybe. I don’t think the company’s in business anymore.” “I’ll find out. What did the police say?”

“I told them the same thing. They seem to think it’s a simple burglary, but I don’t know. The fact the thief knew about the alarm box worries me. Seems a little—I don’t know—spooky. Will you take this case?”

“Of course. I specialize in spooky cases. But let me suggest a trade. Last night, someone killed one of Camden’s friends, a man named Jared Hunter. Jared liked to buy his girlfriend Alycia jewelry. Do you remember a customer by that name?”

“I’ll be glad to check my records.”

“And if you’d check with some of the other jewelry shops, I’d appreciate it. I’m trying to find the girlfriend, Alycia Ward, and I don’t have a lot of leads.”

“Sure. I’m really hoping this thief isn’t one of my employees, Randall.”

“Anybody got it in for you? Bill collector? Dissatisfied customer?”

“As far as I know, everyone’s happy. I pay my bills, and we have an unconditional money-back guarantee on all merchandise. I inherited the store from my father, and he inherited it from his father, and so on, back at least seventy years. We have a great reputation.”

I looked around the carved mahogany walls and up at the elaborate ceiling with its old fashioned light fixtures and the glass display cases filled with rings, bracelets, watches, and necklaces, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights and artificial poinsettias. “I’d like to talk to your employees.”

“Any time. Like I said, I hate to think any one of them is responsible. Gert Fagan’s been with me for years, and my two part-time kids are great. J.C. Chapman and Sim Johnson help me out every Christmas. They’re great kids, lots of fun. At first, I thought the call about the robbery was one of their jokes.”

He was plainly upset at the thought of his staff betraying him. “Maybe it was just a burglar who got lucky.”

“Or a burglar who knows the architectural history of Parkland.”

Most burglars don’t go to that much trouble. As much as Petey Royalle hated it, this did indeed look like an inside job.

“Can you think of anyone who might have a grudge against the store? Anyone suspicious who might have been in, looking around?”

He pointed to another monitor. “We have a security camera, but it was also disabled that night. I reviewed the tapes for the past week, and I didn’t see anyone but normal customers. Of course, this close to Christmas, we’ve been busier than usual. There’s a good chance I may have missed something.”

“Do you still have the tapes?”

“The police took them. They’re really boring. The only thing we caught was Gert adjusting her panty hose.”

He was trying to make light of the situation, but I could tell he was still upset. “Any idea why the burglar took those particular items?”

“Now that’s really got me stumped. The guy takes a box of rings and a few jeweled bracelets. In the same case, you’ve got piles of gold necklaces and some very expensive sterling silver charms. He could’ve easily scooped those up. I’m glad he didn’t, but it wouldn’t have taken a second.”

“Maybe someone or something surprised him.” “Maybe it was the Avenger.”

“The what?”

“You haven’t heard about the Parkland Avenger? Some goofball in a cape and tights has been running around the city at night. He’s supposed to be a crime fighter, but he’s getting in the way.”

“I’ve missed that news item. Sure he’s not using his secret disguise to rob stores?”

“The police would like to ask him that same question.”

I looked around the small, elegantly paneled office. “Is there a back door?”

“Down that hall to your left.”

“So anyone who comes in the back passes by your office?” “That’s correct. In fact, the kids make a joke about sneaking in. They may pull a few pranks now and then, but they’re never late. You couldn’t find better employees. There has to be an answer to this.”

I was sure there was, but it might not be what he wanted  to hear. “I’ll do my best to find one, Pete. I’ll talk to your employees when I can. Right now, I’m going to see another of Jared’s friends.”

I had an address for Boyd Taylor. I was on my way to his house when my cell phone rang. It was Tamara Eldridge, Camden’s boss. Like most of the women I know, including my mom, she called me by my first name.

“David, I need your help. Cam’s having a problem. He keeps seeing a murder, and I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll be right there.”

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