This Old Homicide
Chapter 1 continued
Anytime Dad and my uncle Pete were in town, they met for breakfast at the Cove to chitchat with friends and neighbors and catch up on town business. Meaning gossip, of course. My dad and uncle, like everyone else in our small town, thrived on gossip. And wouldn’t you know it? I always got the juiciest tidbits from those two men.
I rubbed my arms briskly to chase away the cold as I walked to the town square. Dad and Uncle Pete had just come home from a weeklong fishing trip at the Klamath River. They’d returned last night, dirty, exhausted, and happy to be back. Dad had parked his Winnebago in my driveway and dropped off six large, beautiful Chinook salmon for my freezer. It looked as though we’d be eating fish for the next few months. I wasn’t complaining.
While the two men sat at my dining room table enjoying a beer after their long drive, I had filled them in on the most current scuttlebutt around town: Emily’s purchase of the old Rawley Mansion; the latest round of infighting among the town’s Festival Committee members; MacKintyre Sullivan’s new book landing on the bestseller list. I promised to make homemade pizza for them sometime over the weekend since they’d called from the road to say they’d built up a powerful craving for pizza.
Odd cravings could happen when you hung out with a bunch of fishermen all week. Pizza was fairly normal, compared to some hankerings Dad had come up with in the past. The pizza request reminded me of some of his funny old sayings, or truisms, as he called them. One of his favorites went like this: building a house is like building a pizza. It took skill and artistry, the right tools, and strong wrists to pound nails into wood—or throw dough up in the air.
It wasn’t the smoothest of axioms, especially the part about artistry, but it worked for him.
The thing was, not only had Dad signed this house and his business over to me after he suffered a mild heart attack five years ago, he had also turned over to me his longtime ritual of making homemade pizza. Once the task was safely passed on to the next generation, namely me, he was lavish in his praise of my culinary abilities. Oh, I knew I made a good pizza, but he liked to lay it on thick because he never wanted to have to make one for himself again.
I pushed the diner door open and was greeted with shouts of welcome along with the savory smells of bacon and warm syrup. I suddenly craved something yummy, even though I’d promised myself a healthy bowl of oatmeal.
“Over here, honey,” Dad said, and scooted closer to the wall to make room for me in the booth he shared with Uncle Pete. Cindy the waitress arrived seconds later to pour a hot cup of coffee for me.
“Thanks, Cindy,” I said, smiling at her. Today her nametag handkerchief corsage was a lacy floral concoction that covered half her chest. If they were handing out prizes at a waitress convention, Cindy would win the corsage nametag competition hands down.
“You know what you want, hon?”
“I’ll need a few seconds.” I frowned at her. “I had my mind made up until I came inside and smelled bacon.”
“Rocky’s French toast is excellent today,” she said with an evil wink before walking back to the front counter.
“Great,” I muttered. So much for my noble attempt to start the day with a healthy breakfast. Cindy knew my weaknesses and exploited them gleefully.
A minute later, she was back to take my order of French toast, a side of bacon, and a fruit bowl. The fruit bowl was my nod to healthiness. It was a pitiful little nod, but it was enough to let me enjoy the rest of my order without feeling too guilty.
While I drank my coffee, Dad and Uncle Pete filled me in on all the latest happenings around town. It was mystifying how two men could go away for a week and come back knowing so much more about my neighbors than I did.
“Have you seen Jesse lately?” Dad asked, referring to Jesse Hennessey, the man who’d been our next-door neighbor for almost as long as I’d been alive. Most mornings, Jesse could be found sitting at the end of the counter reading his paper and nursing the one blessed cup of coffee he was allowed to drink each day.
“Cindy says he hasn’t been in here in a few days,” Uncle Pete added.
I glanced at the counter where Jesse usually sat and realized I hadn’t seen him recently, either. “I hope he’s not sick.”
Uncle Pete wiggled his eyebrows. “Maybe he’s shacked up with his little sweetie.”
I almost choked on my coffee. “What’re you talking about? There’s no little sweetie shacked up at Jesse’s house.”
Pete shrugged. “So maybe he goes to her place.”
“We’re talking about Jesse, right? He doesn’t have a girlfriend,” I assured them. “I would know.”
“But he told us all about her,” Dad said. “She’s supposed to be a hottie.”
Good grief, Jesse Hennessey was seventy-seven years old. What was he doing with a hottie? “You know how he likes to embellish the truth. Maybe this is one of those times.”
“Could be,” Dad admitted. “I know he’s told some whoppers in his time.”
As I sipped my coffee, I started to feel a little less certain. “I guess he could be dating someone, but I’ve never seen another car next door. He rarely has visitors. I would notice.”
Uncle Pete shrugged again. “He’s a private guy. Might not want the neighbors talking.”
Private didn’t come close to describing my neighbor. Paranoid was more accurate. He’d always been a bit of a conspiracy theorist and Jane and I used to be amused when he’d claim that people were watching him. But in the last few years, I had to admit he’d grown to distrust everyone except for his niece Jane, who was one of my best friends. Especially when it came to business and money. I liked to think he trusted me, too, but he’d never introduced me to his hottie girlfriend—if the woman even existed, which I doubted. I would have to ask Jane about her.
“Shannon might be right, Pete,” Dad admitted. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Jesse was pulling our legs. He’s always liked the ladies well enough, but he likes his privacy more.”
Uncle Pete looked skeptical. “More than the ladies?”
Dad winked at me and I smiled. I knew how much he and Uncle Pete liked the ladies, too.
“So, who are we voting for in the mayor’s race?” Dad asked, changing topics radically.
I gave him my two cents, and the subject grew lively as the couple in the booth behind us joined in. Even Rocky the cook tossed out a few salty comments from the kitchen. Local politics had a way of energizing a room.
Uncle Pete abruptly switched topics again. “So, what’d you and your Festival Committee come up with for Valentine’s Day this year?”
I almost slid under the booth.
“Yeah, how’s that going?” Dad said. “I’m still gonna drive the Hammer Construction float, right?”
“Oh, you bet,” I said quickly. “Things are going great. No worries.” Seeing Cindy, I added gratefully, “Oh, look, here’s my breakfast.”
As Cindy unloaded three full plates in front of me, I flashed her a look of appreciation for helping me cut off that avenue of conversation.
Unfortunately she ignored my look. “Is that true, Shannon?” she said, her voice registering skepticism. “Because I heard that Whitney Gallagher and Jennifer Bailey demanded to join the committee.”
“Oh no,” Dad muttered.
“Yes.” Cindy nodded enthusiastically. “And I hear they’re causing all sorts of heartburn for y’all.”
From across the aisle, Mrs. Schuster gave me a sympathetic nod. “I heard a bunch of vendors dropped out and the festival is going to be a disaster.”
All conversation ceased as each person in the place turned to look at me. And herein lay the essential problem with small towns: everyone knew everyone else and we all thrived on gossip. We sucked it up like chocolate marshmallow cream on a hot fudge sundae. It was our lifeblood. And frankly, the more painful or scandalous the news, the more we slurped it up. And nothing was more painful to me than having to deal on a weekly basis with Whitney Reid Gallagher and her BFF, Jennifer Bailey, my worst enemies from high school.
The Festival Committee was headed by my friend Jane and I was her second-in-command. Two years ago, we had stepped up and volunteered to run the committee. It was a little scary putting ourselves out there, but we’d decided it was our turn to give back to our community. Luckily our good deed was rewarded and our eight-member team got along great. We’d been having a great time planning the parades and festivals and events that occurred every month in Lighthouse Cove, and each one had turned out better than the one before.
But a month ago, our luck had run out. Whitney and Jennifer had insisted on joining the committee. They’d heard it was fun. And it was. Until they joined. I truly believed that those two women thrived on draining every last ounce of joy the rest of us—especially me—had found working together.
And boy, that burned me up. You’d think that both women would be nicer to me after I saved their sorry butts a few months ago. They would both be goners—I’m talking dead—if not for me and my quick action. And while I hadn’t been sitting around waiting for the flowers and candy and maybe a thank-you note to arrive, I certainly hadn’t expected everything to go back to the same old rotten status quo. I was wrong, sadly. So now the entire committee had to suffer from their obnoxious presence. I blamed myself because it was clear that they were only here to torment me.
Fortunately it wasn’t just me who thought the two women were meanies. The others agreed. A good thing, too, because if I was the only one bothered by Whitney and Jennifer, I would’ve considered seeking professional help for my victim complex.
But no, the other women recognized that Whitney and Jennifer were there to make our lives miserable. The two newcomers questioned every decision and ridiculed every new idea. What made it worse was that the twosome had joined right before Christmas, which really put a damper on our holiday spirits. More recently they drove one of the women to tears after she suggested a Valentine fashion show for dogs and cats with prizes for each category. I thought it was a super idea and the perfect way to entertain the kids in attendance and many of the adults, too. Especially the ones with pets, like me. But Jennifer’s groans and Whitney’s eye rolls gave a clear indication of their opinion.
Once those two left the meeting, though, Jane assured the rest of us that the pet fashion show was a brilliant idea and would definitely go forward. Right then and there, we began brainstorming some funny categories and prizes for the show.
Jane ran into another problem when she was handing out assignments for the Valentine’s Day Festival. She’d asked Whitney and Jennifer to take charge of lining up vendors for the food booths. They had simply refused, claiming they were too busy shopping for Christmas presents. They weren’t too busy to complain, of course. Finally Jane was left with no choice but to insist that they resign from the committee, but they refused that, too! They just kept showing up week after week, annoying everyone with their negative vibe.
It didn’t make sense to any normal person. But then, their animosity toward me and the town in general had never made sense.
Jane had recently resorted to scheduling secret meetings with everyone on the committee attending except Whitney and Jennifer. We were finally able to get some work done and recapture the camaraderie and fun we’d had before the other two joined the group. Of course, we were forced to keep the meetings hush-hush for fear of reprisals. Nobody wanted to suffer the wrath of Whitney.
Naturally the entire town had heard about the committee’s discord, but so far, nobody had found out about the secret meetings. And they never would, if I could help it.
I pasted an innocent smile on my face and looked up at Cindy. “Yes, Whitney and Jennifer have joined the group and we’re all getting along great. This year’s Valentine’s Festival is going to be the best one ever.”
“So the bickering I’ve heard about is just an ugly rumor?” she persisted. “I’m not sure I believe that.”
“It’s true,” I said jovially, waving the idea away. “It was a little shaky at first, but now we’re all buddies.”
“Huh. Wonder where that rumor came from,” she muttered as she walked back to the kitchen.
Oh, I knew exactly where it came from, I thought, my teeth clenched in frustration. The mean girls themselves. But I continued to smile at everyone who was listening and they all smiled back with great relief. Nobody wanted the festival to be a disaster.
I finally gazed down at my breakfast of fluffy French toast drenched in syrup and butter, and bacon. Oh, and fruit. Pineapple chunks, blueberries, and strawberries, all made even better by the presence of syrup.
I should’ve been blissfully stuffing myself by now, dredging each thick, luscious bite through the melted goodness of syrup and butter. But I’d lost my appetite. I couldn’t even down my second cup of coffee. And for that alone, I would never forgive Whitney Gallagher and Jennifer Bailey.
An hour later, after assuring Dad and Uncle Pete that I wasn’t sick with some horrible stomach ailment that had caused me to lose interest in food, I headed home to get ready for work. I had a meeting with the Planning Commission at ten o’clock, so I would have to dress a little nicer today than usual. Not that I didn’t dress nicely all the time, but let’s face it, I worked on construction sites. Most of the time, my wardrobe choices weren’t complicated.
I walked down the driveway and through the back gate to my kitchen door. But then I hesitated, recalling Dad’s comment about Jesse. It wouldn’t hurt to check up on the old guy since I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him. Maybe three days ago? Four? I recalled glimpsing him out in his yard, kibitzing as usual with Mrs. Higgins from across the street. I remembered because I had just come back from Emily’s, where we’d looked through home magazines together so I could get an idea of what she wanted for her new home. Her closing was this coming week. Two weeks had passed in a hurry.
What if Jesse had been sick for the last few days? The least I could do was find out if he needed a ride to the doctor. Or I could offer to deliver an emergency quart of chicken soup from the diner.
I changed direction and headed next door to his place. Jesse’s house was one of the smaller ones on the street, a blue-and-white, one-and-a-half-story Victorian with the prototypical pitched roof and wide porch, but it featured a charming white-railed widow’s walk that was accessed by climbing out the attic window. Jesse had always talked about turning the attic into his version of a man cave, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
His place had grown a little shabby around the edges over the years and I’d repeatedly offered to spruce it up for him, to no avail. Once in a while when I was mowing my lawn, I would go next door and clean up his yard, but it needed a lot more help than that. The front porch was begging for a paint job, and one of the dining room shutters had been missing a few slats for the longest time. Maybe I’d sneak over and fix a few things as a favor to him, especially if he was sick. I could certainly mow his lawn again because it was getting shaggier by the minute.
I knocked on the front door and waited. After a minute, I knocked again. I really hoped he was feeling okay. The old man was crotchety, set in his ways, and had a tendency to tell huge, whopping fibs—or tall tales, as he called them—but I adored him. He’d never married or had children, but he’d always been close to his niece, my friend Jane.
I knocked once more, louder this time, because Jesse seemed to be getting a little deaf. For good measure, I shouted, “Jesse, are you here?”
After another full minute, I took the hint. He obviously wasn’t in there. I headed for home, but as I stuck my key into the kitchen door lock, my conscience wouldn’t let me relax. What if Jesse was inside the house, sick or in pain? What if he’d fallen down and couldn’t reach the telephone or the front door? Darn it, I couldn’t walk away without making sure he was all right.
“He won’t thank me for this,” I muttered, but my decision was made.
Years ago, after a house down the street caught on fire, my father and a few of our neighbors had exchanged house keys to use in case of future emergencies. Dad kept them all on a key ring in the kitchen “junk drawer.” Even though he had moved out of the house and into his RV five years ago, I’d never cleaned out that drawer. It was impossible to throw some of those things away because you just never knew.
Pushing aside a stack of yellowed appliance catalogs, an old tape measure, and a dried-up tube of superglue—okay, I definitely needed to clean out this drawer—I found the key ring. Happily most of the keys had small, round descriptive tags attached, so I checked until I found the key that was tagged JESSE’S PLACE.”
I jogged back to his house and unlocked the front door, feeling a momentary pang of guilt for invading his privacy. I knew he would hate having anyone walk into his house without his permission, but what could I do?
“It’s for your own good,” I said under my breath. Later, I planned to lecture him on keeping in better touch with his neighbors.
The house was dark and quiet. It was musty, too, from being closed up for a while. I was tempted to open some windows, but I figured that would be going a little too far.
“Hello, Jesse? Are you here?”
There was no response and to be honest, I didn’t feel his presence in the house. So maybe he’d gone away for the week. But he’d always told me when he was going anywhere for any length of time so I’d be sure to keep an eye on his house.
Even though I didn’t feel his presence—and didn’t that make me sound like some psychic nut job? —I was still determined to check all the rooms. If he wasn’t home, fine. But what if he’d fallen and couldn’t get up? I needed to make sure.
From the foyer, I turned left and tiptoed down the hall to the last room on the right, which I knew was his bedroom. On the way, I took a quick peek inside the other two bedrooms—one of which was his office—to check for him. By the time I reached his bedroom, I was sorry I’d been so eager to find him. Every room was a mess, with dresser drawers opened and clothing tossed everywhere. Even the sheets on the bed had been dragged off and were lying on the floor.
His office was a disaster, too, with the rug pushed back against the wall and the contents of his desk drawers emptied onto the hardwood floor. I had to watch where I stepped to avoid slipping on something. Had he been searching for something? He must’ve been in one heck of a hurry to leave things scattered everywhere without picking it all up.
I’d visited him countless times over the years and I’d never seen anything like this. Jesse was like an uncle to me and he was one of my father’s closest friends. We used to get together all the time for barbecues and neighborhood parties. He didn’t go in for grilling much; he generally left that manly chore to my dad. But whenever it got cold and damp, Jesse would whip up a batch of his world-famous chili or, on the rare occasion, a big, rich chicken stew. Both were his specialties, and he’d invite the whole block over for a bowlful, served with his delicious corn bread muffins.
On those occasions, his rooms were as neat and clean as could be. Jesse had spent much of his adult life in the navy until he retired almost twenty years ago, so to say he kept things shipshape around here was an understatement.
But as I looked around now, the only ship this place brought to mind was the Titanic. I didn’t realize what a slob he’d turned into.
I felt instantly guilty for thinking those thoughts. Maybe I wasn’t being fair. Maybe he’d grown depressed lately. That possibility broke my heart, but it could explain the mess. I made a mental note to call Jane as soon as I got home to see if there was some way to help him get through this bad patch.
I returned to the foyer and turned left to go to the kitchen. “Jesse? Are you here?”
He wasn’t. But there was more of the same disarray in this room, with drawers pulled open and utensils and kitchen gadgets strewn across the counters and the floor. Cupboard doors were open, the contents shoved to the side or swept haphazardly onto the floor.
I scowled at the mess. Something was really wrong. If this was a sign of depression, Jesse needed help immediately.
But Jesse wasn’t depressed; I knew it in my gut. It wasn’t in his nature. No, this mess looked more like a desperate hunt to find something and he didn’t care if he left a disaster in his wake.
“Jesse?” I called again, more urgently this time. I headed for the small den off the kitchen where he liked to watch television. And that was where I found him. He was sound asleep on the couch with one arm dangling over the edge.
“Jesse!” I hurried across the room, so filled with relief that I forgot about the mess and everything else. “Thank goodness you’re here. Don’t be mad that I came into your house, but I was worried.”
There was no reaction. The man could sleep like the dead, I thought. The way he’d torn his home apart, I had to wonder if he was simply exhausted. Old people could do some weird things sometimes. I recalled my grandmother going off on all sorts of oddball tangents before she died, once tearing up a scrapbook filled with old photographs, and another time bingeing on jars of jalapeño pickles.
I studied Jesse’s face and wondered if maybe he was sick after all, because he looked pale, almost gray.
“Jesse?” I knelt down beside the couch and touched his forehead to make sure he wasn’t feverish.
On the contrary, his skin was cool. And no wonder, since the poor guy was wearing a pair of tidy white cotton boxer shorts and nothing else.
“Come on, Jesse, wake up.” I reached for the afghan draped over the back of the couch and covered him up to give him a little dignity. I lifted his arm onto the couch and tucked the edges of the blanket under him to warm him up.
“Jesse,” I said softly, shaking his shoulder lightly. “Can I get you some soup or something?”
His arm slid off the couch again. And I suddenly realized why.
“Oh, jeez!” I scooted backward, away from him, scrambling to my feet as I shouted his name over and over again. “Jesse! Oh my God! Jesse!”
It didn’t do any good. He wasn’t going to wake up.
Jesse Hennessey was dead.