“I’ve Found a New Baby”
I didn’t expect a murder to happen right down the street from my second wife’s house, but then, I didn’t expect a lot of things, including sleeping in my car. Admittedly, there’s plenty of room in the back seat of a ’67 Plymouth Fury, but October in Parkland, North Carolina, can be pretty steamy, even at dawn, so I was awake when the sirens and flashing lights came by.
My first wife, Barbara, and I parted ways two years ago. I really thought Anita and I might make it to our second anniversary— aluminum foil, I believe it is—but now that was another date I could scratch off the calendar. I’d parked outside my former home telling myself it was because Anita might relent and let me back in, but the real reason was I had nowhere else to go.
When I first heard the sirens, I was in that odd state of not quite awake not quite asleep, and my heart jumped, thinking I was back on that hillside four years ago searching for Lindsey through clouds of black smoke, not realizing my world was about to end. I shook myself as blue and red lights bounced off the interior of the Fury and zigzagged through the neighborhood like some crazed lightning. The eerie blue light made the trees look like they’d risen from some alien swamp and gave a zombie glow to the few curious neighbors who’d ventured from their houses. Car doors slammed. Shadowy figures ran and called to each other. Lindsey! My God, where was she?
I shook myself fully awake. Get up! I told myself. This wasn’t the wreck. This was something else, maybe something that needed my help. I wanted in on what was happening down the street.
When I arrived at the scene, my friend Jordan Finley, one of Parkland’s homicide detectives, scowled at me.
“I saw that car of yours. What are you doing here?” “I live down the street,” I said. “Well, I used to.”
Jordan spared me a brief look of sympathy. We’d worked together on several cases. Maybe “worked together” isn’t the right term. When there’s something like a dead body, I definitely call him, but there have been times when I fudged a little and kept clues to myself. Jordan likes to claim all the credit for solving a crime. I can’t blame him. I like to claim all the credit, too. He’s built like a refrigerator topped with a stiff brush of black hair and wary blue eyes. Right now, he was a refrigerator about to freeze over so you couldn’t get the door open.
“And you just happened to be dressed and awake?”
“Anita threw me out, but never mind that.” A body was brought out of the house on a stretcher, an elderly man in his pajamas. The bloodstains on his head looked black in the jarring patterns of blue and red light. “What happened here?”
“Albert Bennett was found murdered in his home. Did you know Mr. Bennett?”
I couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone at this house. “No.” “Did you see or hear anything unusual last night?”
Besides my recurring nightmare? “No.” “Then you can move along.”
Another policeman came up to Jordan and showed him a notebook. “Found this on the lawn. Doesn’t appear to be anything else missing from the house.”
The notebook had been mangled, and a few pages fell out. I managed to pick them up and have a look before Jordan grabbed them out of my hand. My brief glance had shown me what looked like music.
Jordan glared. “Do you mind?” He gave the pages back to the policeman. ”What’s inside?”
“Just some music notes and weird scribbling. Looks like code.”
“Check it out.”
The policeman left, and Jordan turned to me. “Heard you left Morton’s.”
“Yeah. I’ve got to go by and pick up a few things, but I’m done.” “Packing it in? Giving up being a detective?”
I wasn’t sure what else I could do. “Morton’s is a dead-end agency. I thought I’d give it a shot on my own, which is why I’d like in on this case.”
Jordan signaled another policeman to move around to the other side of the house. “Doesn’t look like much of a case. Someone broke in, possibly surprised Bennett, knocked him over the head and killed him, possibly by accident. Alarm goes off, they cut and run.”
“Why would they be after a notebook?” “That’s what my team is going to find out.” “Does Mr. Bennett have any family?”
“That’s something the police department will find out.” Jordan gave me another look. “So, you got a place to stay?”
“Not at the moment.” “See if Cam’s got a room.” “Yeah. Maybe.”
I had one more friend left in the world, but did I really want to call him? He’d let me stay in his house. Camden lets anybody stay in his house. I called his goofball tenants the Sponge and Leech Club because, as far as I could tell, no one contributed a penny. The last time I was there, he was sheltering some old codger named Fred plus two factory workers who argued all the time and chased each other around the kitchen with a baseball bat and a water gun because one of them left the ice trays out. That was two years ago, when Anita and I were on the outs about something. I stayed for a week until I got tired of all the nonsense.
Until you got tired of avoiding Camden and his all-knowing stares, I reminded myself. I’m an only child and like to think of Camden as the brother I never had, but he’s psychic, which sounds like a lot of fun, but most of the time it’s damned annoying. He knew what my problem was. I knew what my problem was, too, and I didn’t want to talk about it, or have Camden delve into my brain for the answers. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I kept telling myself it was because I was too busy.
It started to rain, and the inside of the Fury steamed up like a rain forest. I cranked up the air, and as soon as the windows were clear, I headed toward the nearest Motel 6. It takes about twenty minutes to navigate the one-way streets in town, crossing Smith and Elm to get to Regent, which is the main street going back out of the city. Plenty of time to rethink my life.
My life. What there was left of it. My life went off the rails when Lindsey died. Instead of clinging to each other, Barbara and I grew apart. We both blamed me for the accident. I bounced over to Anita. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was vastly unfair to her, and to her credit, she figured out she couldn’t fix me. I was useless.
But I wasn’t going to be useless forever. I headed back to Albert Bennett’s, hoping the crime scene team had finished and maybe I could look around, but no luck. The police cars were still there, the lights still shuddering through the neighborhood. I’d establish a base camp and come back later. I’d been jarred awake, not only from sleep, but from the dullness of my daily routine tracking deadbeat dads and cheating spouses. I wanted to solve this puzzling crime, a wealthy man with plenty of possessions, apparently murdered over a damn notebook. If I couldn’t make Lindsey’s life right, I sure as hell could avenge someone else’s.
The situation called for a little mood music. At the next red light, I slid a CD into the player. I like traditional jazz, a preference from my early days when Dad played his favorite records during dinner and on into the evening. He liked The Dukes of Dixieland, a bunch of cheerful-looking guys in red and white striped jackets who tore into every tune so vigorously, it was impossible to sit still when the Dukes were rolling. Later, Dad and I progressed to the New Black Eagle Jazz Band, and that’s what I had on now, specifically a zippy little number called “I’ve Found a New Baby.” It helps me think. A burst of jazz makes my brain perk up, putting thoughts together like a run of notes along a staff.
But at the moment, my brain wasn’t too perky. I pulled into the parking lot of the Motel 6 and looked at the drab building with its rows of dingy white doors, the empty beer cans, and plastic cups piled on the curb. I caught a strong whiff of rotten garbage from the overflowing Dumpster. The spluttering neon sign said “No Vacancy.” I slumped in the car, trying not to see my life as a long row of large doors slamming in my face. There were hundreds of motels in Parkland. I’d keep sleeping in the Fury if I had to. Either way, it was clear that I needed refreshments. The nearest convenience store was a little shop called Joe’s Market just across the street. I found several packs of the fluorescent orange peanut butter crackers I like and was heading to the back for the beer when to my disbelief, Camden came up the aisle carrying a six-pack of Bud. “Thought you might need this,” he said.
As usual, he looked like he’d slept in his clothes. His pale hair was in his eyes, and his shirt was buttoned crooked. He had on baggy white trousers and a black vest decorated with iridescent hummingbirds, probably pulled from the depths of some Goodwill bag. Like me, he’s fast approaching the big three-oh, but he looks years younger, because he’s not very tall and has features women call “cute,” and big blue eyes. Anita once told me women go for expressive eyes and that Camden’s were “beautiful.” She told me mine were nice, too, but that was an afterthought. Mine are brown and I can see out of them. That’s all I care about.
And I wasn’t really sure what I was seeing out of my brown eyes. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. “You frequent Joe’s Market this time of day?”
“Sometimes. What’s up?”
You tell me, I wanted to say. I knew he wasn’t buying beer for himself. He has absolutely no tolerance for alcohol. A couple of sips and he’s up on a table entertaining the troops, which is what he was doing when we met. There’s something about sharing massive hangovers that creates a lifelong bond.
A bond that was scary right now.
“I’ve been pretty busy,” I said. “Tracking down people, finding things. Anita decided she’d had enough of me, so I’m checking into a motel for the night.”
He gave me the full force of those eerie blue eyes. “Well, I’m glad I ran into you. I need a ride home.”
He said this with complete innocence. I knew he didn’t drive.
Too many signals coming in, he says. “Yeah, sure.”
I paid for my crackers, and Camden paid for the beer. We got into the Fury and I steered the car back toward the south side of town. After passing the community college and the coliseum, I turned back on Old Parkland Road, also known as “Food Row.” Every town has one of these streets lined with fast food restaurants, but our Food Row has a median filled with magnolia trees, and when those trees are in bloom, the heavy flower scent mixed with the smell of burgers and fries is a heady combination. Then up three streets, and it’s as if you’ve entered an entirely different city: calm, quiet, and green. It used to be the wealthy part of town, before all the rich folks moved to the suburbs, leaving their massive old homes hidden beneath ancient trees.
Camden’s house is on Grace Street, number 302. It’s a big three-storied house painted light yellow with white trim. It must have been quite a showplace in its day, but now, like all the houses in the neighborhood, it’s sliding gracefully into old age. Because it’s surrounded by even older trees, even when the sun is at its brightest, the house is still sunk in shade. There’s a wide porch that goes around three sides complete with rocking chairs and a porch swing. When Camden came to Parkland, he lived there and helped the man who owned the house remodel it, making four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, on the second floor, and another bedroom and bath out of the large attic. They worked out some sort of deal that if Camden kept up the house, he could live there. When the man moved on to other projects, he sold Camden the house. In order to keep it, Camden has to take in boarders, but, as I said, they usually aren’t very helpful.
I parked the Fury in the dirt driveway. “Here you go.” “Thanks,” he said. “Why don’t you come in and have one of your beers?”
I was tired and thirsty and not ready to continue my motel hunt. “I guess I could do that. Just for a little while, though.”
We walked up the wide stone steps. Camden opened the screen door, and we went in.
“Have a seat, Randall. I’ll be right back.”
I had to admit it was a relief to come into the house. Everything looked the same as it did two years ago. The smell was the same, too, a pleasant mixture of old wood and cinnamon. The living room sprawled over most of the first floor, windows reaching from floor to ceiling. I walked around to the left and sat down in my favorite spot, a faded blue armchair beside a green corduroy sofa parked on brightly colored throw rugs. This area was referred to as “the island,” a kind of relaxing place where you could leave your book open and no one would turn a page, or leave your drink by your chair and no one would take a slurp. I pulled off my wet shoes and socks and propped my feet on the low wooden coffee table where a bag of pretzels shared space with stacks of magazines, including Sky Watchers Monthly and UFO Reporter, a couple of necklaces, and a glass paperweight shaped like a pear holding down a stack of coupons. Beside the wicker rocking chair, red and yellow yarn spilled out of a big basket of needlework. Next to another chair, textbooks and sheet music stood in a sloppy tower, topped by a well-chewed pet toy.
I glanced to my left. The old upright piano still filled the corner of the room, surrounded by music and hymn books on the floor and on the bench. A couple of big plants in tubs guarded the bookshelf crammed with books, knickknacks, and photographs. Toward the back of the room, a large round dining room table and eight matching chairs were still positioned in front of the bay window that displayed a scene of wet green backyard and more huge trees. I knew if I walked around the dining area, I’d find a counter and stools and a kitchen tucked in behind the stairs.
Camden came back carrying a large plastic cup that no doubt held a mixture of the most caffeine-laden sodas on the market. He indicated the bag of pretzels. “Free snacks.”
“Thanks.” I popped open a beer and took a swig.
He sat cross-legged on the green corduroy sofa. He didn’t ask for details about my latest marriage disaster. He didn’t have to. He took a drink of his soda. “How are things at Morton’s?” “The same.” I loosened my tie. “Going to start my own agency.”
“Got someplace in mind?” “Not yet.”
“You need an office? You can use the downstairs parlor there across the foyer.”
I started to tell him I needed to find a place more private when a young woman came in. This girl was a knockout. Long cornsilk blonde hair held back by a headband framed a perfect face dominated by big warm brown eyes. Her long elegant legs were in tight jeans, the rest of her excellent figure in a soft yellow sweater. My mouth flopped open, but Camden wasn’t fazed by this vision. “Oh, hello.” She gave me such a dazzling smile I checked my beer to make sure it wasn’t foaming over. “I’m Kary Ingram.” I was surprised my voice worked. “David Randall.” “Randall will be staying here a few days,” Camden said.
Another smile. “Nice to meet you, David. I hope the piano playing won’t disturb you.”
She could’ve played the tuba for all I cared. “I love piano music.” Her golden hair swung in a sleek wave as she turned to Camden. “Cam, about what we discussed earlier.” “It has to be your decision.”
“Donnie’s a wonderful person.” “Seems like a good guy.”
“But am I doing this for the right reasons?” “That’s something you’ll have to work out.”
“That’s true. Have you seen my Elements of Education textbook?”
“It’s on the kitchen counter.”
Kary went around to retrieve her book. “Kary’s taking classes for her teaching degree at Parkland Community College,” Camden said.
That was not the important info. “And who is Donnie?” “A fellow she met at the college.”
Damn. “Are they in a serious relationship?” “Well, he is.”
Kary came back and picked up a book bag propped beside the piano bench. “And if you’ll excuse me, I’m on my way to class. Will we see you at dinner, David?”
“Yes, you will.” I hadn’t planned to stay, but there was no way I was refusing this angel’s request. My spirits took a definite upswing. She was so full of life and energy and purpose, everything I wanted to be again. Was it only a few hours ago I stood surrounded by jittery police lights, haunted by death? The harrowing scene faded in the warmth of her smile. But what was the deal with this Donnie character, and how soon could I dispose of him?
When a car drove up and the driver honked the horn, the sound jarred me from my tangled thoughts.
Kary looked out one of the front windows. “There’s my ride. See you later.”
I stared at Camden, who settled back innocently on the sofa with his drink. “Don’t tell me she’s living here, too.”
“Working her way through school on pageant money.” “You liar. You dirty old man,” I said. “Any more like her upstairs?”
“Fred’s still here, and Rufus Jackson. You remember him. He’s doing construction work on the new stretch of I-85. That leaves a room for you.”
“Any of them pay rent?”
This earned me a dark look. “They do what they can to help out.”
“In other words, no.” I took a drink of beer and reached for the pretzels. “How long has Kary been living here? I would’ve remembered her.”
“Off and on the past year.”
“How old is she? Do her parents know she’s living here?” “Kary’s got some issues with her parents. That’s why she’s here. I know she looks young, but she’s twenty-four. She has one more year to go at the community college to get her teaching degree. She had some health problems that sidelined her for quite a while. Don’t get any ideas.”
“Ideas? Who’s got any ideas?”
“Well, for starters, you can roll your tongue back in. You’re getting drool all over my rug.”
I flipped him a friendly finger and took another swig of beer. “How serious is she about Donnie?”
“As I said, he’s more serious than she is.” “Are they engaged?”
“Best news I’ve heard all day.” A gray cat slid in from the kitchen and wound its way through the chairs. Then it leaped to the top of the sofa and curled itself around Camden’s neck. “This is Cindy. Another stray.” The cat gave him a long green-eyed stare. He patted her head. “Okay, I’ll take care of it.”
“I’m not going to believe you can read the cat.”
He scratched Cindy behind her ears. “Only when she lets me.” Cindy leaped gracefully to the coffee table, sniffed the open bag of pretzels, and gave me an unwavering green stare. Then she jumped down and ran from the room.
Camden grinned. “What did you say to her?” “What did she say to me is the question.”
He gave me one of his power stares. “So how long do you want to stay?”
“I’ll stay tonight, thanks, but that’s all,” I told Camden.“And turn down the high beams, will you? I don’t want you in my brain.”
“But it’s so nice and roomy in there.”
“Ha. I see your comedic skills haven’t improved.” “‘Comedic.’ That’s good.”
“Give credit to my Word-A-Day calendar.” I put my feet down and heaved myself out of the chair. “I mean it, Camden. Don’t start.”
He took another drink. “Okay.”
I retrieved my belongings, went up the worn stairs to the second floor, and stopped in the doorway of the bedroom. I remembered this room: a calm shade of green with a big four-poster bed, green bedspread, green curtains, a chunky dresser with an oval mirror, a closet, and a small bathroom, also green. I stepped in and put my suitcase on the bed. The room smelled pleasantly of rain and old wood. I took a look out the wide window at the backyard, more large oak trees and a hedge full of ivy. Rain beat a steady rhythm on the thick leaves of the trees and on the uneven metal gutters. At least it wasn’t one of the violent thunderstorms we often had in the summer. That was another thing I’d gotten used to in the south.
Camden couldn’t afford air conditioning, but there was a large fan by the window in case the room got too stuffy. Thanks to the rain shower, the room was cool, though, and slightly damp. I thought about unpacking my suitcase, hanging a few clothes in the closet, putting other things in the dresser drawers. I’d have to retrieve the rest of my wardrobe later, when Anita was away. I could probably find it on the lawn right now.
Tomorrow, I’d start looking for an apartment. I wasn’t going to stay here.
I peeled off my suit and put on drier clothes. Camden could get away with the refugee poet look. I like a little more class. I combed my hair and decided I didn’t look too old for Kary. Six years wasn’t that big a gap, was it?