Authors: Kate Carlisle
“Two things,” I said.
“First, I called the police because it’s a mess inside, so prepare yourself.”
She frowned. “Okay. What’s the second thing?”
“I’m here for you.”
Tears sprang to her eyes and she sniffled. “Damn it, Shannon. I know that.”
“Good.” I grabbed the door handle, pushed it open, and stepped inside. This time I ignored the chaos of the house and headed straight for the kitchen and the adjoining den, where I’d found Jesse’s body.
Behind me, I heard Jane’s murmurs of distress as she noted the disarray. Eric was, as always, stoic.
“Oh God,” Jane whispered as she approached her uncle. Kneeling on the floor next to him, she touched his cheek. “Oh, Uncle.”
Tommy, Eric, and I stood back by the door to give her some privacy. Eric glanced over his shoulder at the chaos in the kitchen and scowled. “Is this how it usually looks in here?”
“No,” I murmured. “That’s why I called you. The whole house has been torn apart.”
“Damn it,” he muttered.
“It could’ve been Jesse searching for something and getting carried away. But I don’t believe that. He’s always been a tidy guy.”
“Okay, let’s take a look.” Under his breath, he added, “Tom, stay with Jane.”
“You got it, boss.”
Jane didn’t notice we were leaving the room.
In the kitchen, I watched the chief walk around, studying the scene as he tried to avoid stepping on all the stuff that had been pulled out of the drawers and cupboards. After another minute he signaled that it was time to move on, so I accompanied him back to the foyer and told him to check out the bedrooms down the hall. I stayed where I was, not wanting to get depressed all over again.
After a bit of time, Eric returned, his expression sober. “You didn’t tell me someone punched a hole in the wall.”
“I didn’t see any holes.”
“There’s a big one behind the door in the back bedroom. It goes right through the layer of lath and plaster.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said, taken aback. “I can’t believe Jesse would do something like that.”
“And one of the floorboards in his office was pulled up.”
“Wow, I noticed the rug was pulled back, but I missed seeing the floorboard.”
“You were looking for Jesse, not trouble.”
“True. But I don’t get it. I can’t believe a burglar would go to all that trouble. It must’ve been Jesse. He had to have been really desperate to find something he lost. I wish he’d called me. He’s not that strong anymore.”
“Was he an angry man?” Eric asked.
“No. I mean, he went on a rant once in a while, but it was usually over a barking dog or something the town council did. He would never do anything violent, though, like pound his fist through a wall. Like I said, he wasn’t that strong.”
“It wasn’t done with a fist. Someone used a sledgehammer.”
I shook my head, perplexed. “What should we do?”
shouldn’t do anything,” he said tightly. “
going to take Jane back outside and
declaring this place a crime scene.”
* * *
“A crime scene?” Jane repeated, once we were relegated to the front porch and the police began searching Jesse’s home for possible clues. “But why?”
“Did you see the mess in there?” Had she been so distraught that she hadn’t noticed something so obvious? “Someone tore Jesse’s house apart. And now he’s dead. The police need to figure out what happened.”
Her eyes widened. “You think Jesse saw someone break in?” She lowered herself into the porch chair and absently brushed her hair back from her face. “That might’ve been enough to give him a heart attack. Do you think that’s what happened?”
“The thought did occur to me.”
“If that’s true, it means that he was literally frightened to death.” She stared at me. “That can’t be possible. It’s too awful.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say that would make her feel better, so I just nodded in agreement.
“Besides, he looked so peaceful.” She cringed. “Oh, what a horrible cliché.”
I didn’t mention that I’d thought the exact same thing earlier when I first saw him.
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions until the police know something for sure.”
“I can’t sit here doing nothing,” she said, gripping her hands together.
“It’s just for a little while,” I said soothingly.
“Oh, don’t act so calm and collected,” she snapped. “You have a worse time sitting still than I do.”
I chuckled inwardly. At least she hadn’t sunk so deeply into despair that she couldn’t get riled up about something.
Jane and I had been best friends since kindergarten so we knew each other almost too well. She was right. Sitting out here doing nothing would drive me insane as quickly as it would her.
It probably wasn’t a good time to mention it to Jane, but I couldn’t wait to get together with Emily, Marigold, and Lizzie, and talk this awful situation out. Even in the worst circumstances, we could always come up with ideas to make things better. Maybe one of them would have a theory to offer. Would they agree that Jesse had been searching for something? Or had his house been burgled? By whom? Maybe the five of us could do a little snooping—I mean, investigating—around town to find out more. We’d gotten pretty good at it, thanks to my own run-in with crime a while back.
“I hate knowing that poor Uncle Jesse died alone,” Jane murmured. “Can there be anything sadder?”
I reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.”
“I should call Mr. Bitterman,” she said. “That would give me something to do.”
The Bittermans owned the local funeral home and had been serving the dead people of Lighthouse Cove for three generations. Blake Bitterman ran the place now with his son, Bryce, who’d gone to school with us.
“Wait a few minutes before you call Bitterman,” I said. “Eric might want to bring in the county coroner.”
“But if he does that, it means he thinks Jesse was…” She pressed her hands over her mouth, unable to say the word.
We were both silent with our own thoughts for a moment, until I returned to the subject I’d touched on before. “Jane, you did see how badly the house was torn apart, right?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah, I saw it. And I refuse to believe Jesse would do that to his own home. Sure, maybe he left the Sunday paper around for a few days, but that was about it. Most of the time, he was a stickler for neatness.”
“I know. And you didn’t even see the rest of the place. I walked down the hall, and all of the rooms have been searched. Someone was in a real hurry, because the drawers and closets and cupboards were all open and things were tossed everywhere. Eric told me that someone broke through the wall in Jesse’s bedroom and pulled up a floorboard in his office.”
“Who could’ve done that? Because it wasn’t Jesse.”
“Are you sure? What if he lost something? Maybe he was missing some important papers.”
“But why would he be looking under a floorboard or in the kitchen cabinets? I mean, there were spice jars and condiments on the floor. Jesse couldn’t have done that.”
She blew out a breath. “And seeing all that mess is why you called the police. Duh. Sorry about what I said earlier. My mind has been muddled since you called me.”
She still looked dazed. “So if someone else was in there searching for something, that person could’ve snuck up on Jesse.”
“Right,” I said. “Although he wasn’t easily scared, he could’ve been caught by surprise so badly that it gave him a heart attack.”
“What if the person knocked him out first and then started searching?”
“It’s possible.” I thought about finding Jesse on the couch. “But it didn’t look like he’d been attacked. I mean, there was no blood or anything. It’s like you said. He looked peaceful, not traumatized.”
“I hope he didn’t suffer.”
Depressed by the thought, I shook my head. “We’re just grasping at straws. We need to wait and hear what the coroner says.”
Jane frowned and shook her head, unwilling to give up theorizing. “If someone was searching for something, what could it be?”
“I don’t know. Did he come into some money recently?”
“No, of course not.” She wrinkled her nose, puzzled. “You know him as well as I do. If he’d come into money, you’d probably hear about it before I did.”
“Maybe so, but only because I’m right next door. My house would’ve been the first stop on his way to telling every last person in town.”
“True,” she said, with a light chuckle. “He was private about a lot of things, but he sure liked to share the good news.”
I sat up abruptly. “Hey, that reminds me. Did Jesse have a girlfriend?”
Jane looked at me sideways. “Are you kidding? No.”
“That’s what I figured, but my dad and uncle both claim that Jesse had a girlfriend. A hottie, they said.”
She frowned. “That sounds like one of his tall tales.”
“I thought the same thing.”
“If he had a girlfriend, we all would’ve met her, right? Especially if she was a hottie.”
“Well, of course she would be a hottie,” I said, laughing. “Why would he make up a girlfriend and have her be ugly?”
Jane stared at the house across the street. “I wonder if Mrs. Higgins ever saw her.”
Mrs. Higgins was Jesse’s partner in crime when it came to sharing and passing along the latest gossip.
I winced at the thought of Mrs. Higgins. “I haven’t seen her this morning. I’d better go tell her what happened before she sees the police cars.”
“It’s too late for that,” Jane said, gazing at the three cop cars parked on the street. “She’s going to be upset. I’ll go with you.”
“Thanks. It’ll help if you’re there.” I took a long look at the sunny yellow house across the street. “I’m surprised she’s not out in her yard, demanding to know what’s going on.”
Jane frowned. “I hope she’s okay.”
“Let’s go find out.”
As we crossed the street, Jane locked arms with me. “I’m sorry you were all by yourself when you found him.”
“Yeah, me, too. It was bizarre and sad.”
“What made you go inside?”
I told her about meeting my dad and uncle for breakfast at the diner and how they’d missed seeing Jesse. “You know he’s usually there in the morning, reading the paper and drinking his one cup of coffee. So I figured I’d stop by to check up on him. I knocked a few times, but he didn’t come to the door. I thought he might be sick or something.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t just walk away. The thought of him lying there alone for a few more days…” She shuddered.
“I considered that, too. But it looks like we found him within a few hours of his death—although I’m no expert, obviously. I thought he was sound asleep. I even put a blanket over him.”
“Aw,” she said, squeezing my arm. “Thank you for doing that.”
I glanced at her. “You should thank me. Otherwise you would’ve caught him in his white boxer shorts and nothing else.”
She choked on a laugh. “Oh God. I’ve been buying him a three-pack of white boxers and white socks for Christmas for as long as I can remember.”
“It’s what he liked.”
She sighed. “Yes.”
I knocked on the door of the yellow house and waited. When the door swung open, I could tell that Mrs. Higgins actually did have a cold.
“What is it? What happened? What’s wrong?” she asked in rapid order, her voice sounding nasally.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mrs. Higgins. Are you sick?”
“I’ve got a touch of something,” she said, tugging her housecoat more snugly around her. “I spent the entire morning sleeping. I never do that.”
“I wanted to let you know—
“Are those police cars?” she asked, stretching to see beyond me. “What’s going on around here? Somebody get arrested? I’ll bet it’s those drug runners. I’ve seen ’em sneaking around town in the middle of the night.” She folded her arms across her chest and looked directly at me. “Anybody sneaking around at night is up to no good. You can take that to the bank.”
Why was she looking at me? I never snuck around at night.
“It’s about Jesse,” Jane said softly, catching Mrs. Higgins’s attention. “He passed away sometime last night.”
“What? Jesse? What do you mean?” She glanced from Jane to me, frowning. “No.”
“It’s true, Mrs. Higgins,” I said.
“No, it can’t be. Jesse’s… no.” She looked confused and her eyes grew damp. “No.” Her knees began to wobble and I grabbed her arm to steady her.
“Let’s sit down.” I walked into her house and led her over to the sofa in her front room. Jane sat on her other side and we both held her hands for a few minutes while she wept and tried to speak. It was hard. The more questions she asked, the more information we gave her, the more she curled up protectively.
She was clearly devastated. But after a few minutes, she dried her eyes with a wadded tissue and glared at me. “Why didn’t you come and get me sooner?”
That caught me by surprise. “I… um, I’m sorry, Mrs. Higgins. I was busy with the police.”
She huffed, pointing out the front window. “I missed everything. Look at those police cars. I never heard them arrive.”
“Their sirens were blaring,” I said a little defensively.
“And I missed it? Dang.”
I gave Jane a quick glance and she jumped in. “You should be able to catch the county coroner’s arrival in a little while.”
“The county coroner?” Mrs. Higgins whispered reverently. “Oh my. Yes, I’ll watch for him. The least I can do is watch ’em take the body away.” Her eyes darted from Jane to me and back to Jane. “For Jesse’s sake, I mean.”
“Of course,” Jane said, biting back a smile.
Mrs. Higgins patted Jane’s hand. “I know he was your family and I’m sorry for your troubles. But all this excitement was happening right in front of my nose and I didn’t even get to check it out.”
“It’s not over yet,” I said. “There’s still some more excitement to come.”
She scowled and shook her finger at me. “You, of all people, should’ve known to call on me sooner. I need to be a witness. I could’ve taken pictures. I owe it to that old coot to get all the best gossip before anyone else in town!”