Chapter 1 – Levi
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I sat on my front porch finishing up a turkey on rye when the rural mail carrier’s yellow Jeep started and stopped briskly at each of my neighbors’ driveways to deliver their mail. I didn’t have to look down the long neighborhood street to confirm I was right, I could tell by the rev of the engine and the squeal of the brakes a few seconds later.
I winced as the metal-on-metal sound approached. I’d told Jimmy to bring the thing over to the shop a few dozen times so I could work on the brakes, but he always said he was too busy. Maybe I could get him to stop by today after he’d completed his route.
I was supposed to have gone finishing with Scott today, but he’d been called in to cover a shift for another paramedic who had broken his wrist while playing basketball. I could just imagine Greg’s wife saying now how grown men shouldn’t pretend to be boys. Because of his misfortune, my plans for this gorgeous late summer weekend were spoiled.
I glanced around my front porch. I contemplated sweeping it, fixing the loose board near the steps—maybe I could paint the dull and chipping white railing. I’d been talking about doing that all summer. I had even bought the paint to do it, but I’d been putting it off. I hated painting, and I’d already gotten my fill helping Sophia get her house ready to sell in July.
My front garden needed weeding. I didn’t know why I had let Nolan talk me into all the fancy shrubs and flowers, but I had. We’d spent a weekend digging a large garden area and planting a bunch of stuff that I could neither remember nor pronounce. Yeah, it had looked great when it was first done, but now I was stuck pulling weeds, and I was not a fan of that. I should have kept the damned grass, and I could have just mowed over it all in a few passes.
I sighed as I sipped my beer and watched Jimmy pull up to my neighbor’s mailbox. He appeared to be having trouble putting her mail into the box and shook his head as he pulled away. I pushed out of my chair to meet him at the end of my driveway.
“Levi,” he nodded brusquely. Jimmy Cosgrove was an older man who had been delivering mail since before I was born. I’d heard him talking to Dabby many times about how he used to walk our entire township and delivered mail to the front door of each house, instead of the mailboxes on the side of the road. He preferred to walk, but since his knees bothered him now, he stuck to driving.
“Jimmy,” I called out as I approached him. When I got close enough that I didn’t have to raise my voice I spoke again, “Why don’t you bring your Jeep over to the shop after your route. I’ll look at your brakes; they sound like they are practically metal on metal now.”
“I don’t have time for that,” he answered gruffly and shoved my mail toward me.
“You know you’re doing more damage to your vehicle, right? If you don’t fix those brakes, you’re going to need more than just brake pads. By the sound of it, you’re already going to need rotors, and those are expensive.”
“Pfft, they will last another week or so. I’ll get it in to you soon enough.” He glanced back toward my neighbor’s house. “Have you seen crazy Loretta lately?”
I ground my molars. “She’s not crazy, Jimmy. She’s bipolar, there is a difference.”
His eyes bugged in his face, “She came at me with a broom because she said it was my fault that the bills kept showing up. Told me that if I didn’t stop bringing the bills, she was going to stick the broom where the sun don’t shine. Sorry, boy, but that’s crazy talk.”
“And that was over ten years ago, Levi. She’s doing much better with the medications that she is on now.”
“I don’t think so. Her car is over there.” I glanced back at her old burnt-brown Buick sedan parked at the side of the house.
“Yeah, well you might want to check on her. Her mailbox is so crammed full, I won’t be able to fit another piece of mail in it come Monday.”
I frowned as I realized that I hadn’t seen her myself this last week. Usually, I’d see her come and go from her place, or hear her vehicle—which barely passed state inspection—pull onto the main road when I was at my shop, but I hadn’t this week.
I waved goodbye to Jimmy as I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Loretta. I tossed my mail carelessly onto my front porch and went to remove her mail from her mailbox. Maybe she was having a hard time with her leg, and she wasn’t getting around much. I did remember her limping not long ago.
I filled my arms with envelopes, magazines, and other assorted junk mail and, as I began to approach her tiny faded yellow ranch house, my heart began to speed up. Something wasn’t right. Suddenly, I started fearing that maybe something awful had happened to her. I climbed her front porch steps, and the loose boards on the second step creaked. I need to come tighten that for her when I do mine, I thought. Her porch also needed a good cleaning and paint job. Maybe I after I checked on her, I’d grab the paint I’d bought for my porch and paint hers.
I tried the front door, but it was locked, so I went back down the steps and around the house. This side of the house received little sun, and the muted yellow siding was covered in grit and mold. I glanced at her car. There was a sheen of dust covering every inch as if it had not been driven for weeks. That wasn’t like her. Loretta usually went out a few times a week. Granted, she was kind of a hermit, but she did go shopping and to the doctor’s, and, occasionally, I saw her at the diner talking with Dorothy, the owner.
I climbed the steps to her deck and tested the sliding glass door—unlocked. The minute I opened it, I should have stepped back and made a phone call.
Instead, as the ominous smell hit my nasal passages, I blew out a steady stream of air to clear them as I stepped onto the faded linoleum of her dining area. “Good god, what the hell is that smell?” I muttered to myself as I took another step into the house. “Loretta?” I called out. A fly buzzed past me and I swatted at it.
“Loretta?” I called again as I walked slowly down the hallway listening to any sounds that might come from the bedrooms down the other hallway.
My eyes watered from the stench of the place. As I turned at the end of the hallway to look into the living room, I gasped, filling my lungs with the putrid smell of death.
Adrenaline shot through my chest at the sight in front of me. Loretta was dead, and had been for a long time. At least, it looked like Loretta prone on the dingy yellow carpet. The dark hair was the same length as I remembered, the floral skirt she wore was the same one she’d worn many times.
I shuddered as I tried not to look at her swollen and disfigured face and spun on my heel, rushing for the back door. The instant I was outside, I sucked in a lungful of clean air and then proceeded to vomit over the railing of her deck.
I swiped my mouth with the back of my arm after my entire lunch came up. My limbs shook, and my heart palpitated in my chest.
I walked to the edge of the sun-bleached deck and sat down, pulling my cellphone from my pocket. I dialed the police station and, a moment later, Missy, the dispatcher, answered.
“Missy, it’s Levi.”
“Hey, Levi, what can I do for you?”
I smiled briefly as I thought about the huge change that Missy had undergone since meeting Casper Princeton, former FBI agent and now chief of police here in Celebration. That just went to show that with the right person, anything was possible.
I sighed heavily, “Loretta Findley is dead.”
“What?” she barked.
I could hear typing. “I just found her in her house, and it looks like she’s been dead for a while.”
“Are you sure she was dead? Did you check for signs of life?”
“Oh, I have no doubt that she is dead, Missy.”
“Did it look like foul play?” Missy asked.
“Oh, it was foul, but I’m not the investigator here. I found her, lost my lunch, and then called you.”
“Oh, that bad, huh?”
“Yeah, that bad.”
“Alright, Thad is on duty. He’ll be over soon.”
I hung up and glanced over my shoulder at the open glass door. I shuddered again at the sight that would forever be burned into my mind. I got to my feet quickly and stepped further away from the porch as if putting distance between me and the door would help the image disappear. It was going to take a serious amount of brain bleach to rid myself of that image.
I glanced at my porch. I could sit there until Thad arrived, but instead of going to my yard, I sat on her front porch and hung my head. How long had she been dead? A week? Longer? Why hadn’t I come over to check on her? What kind of a neighbor was I not to have checked in on an elderly woman who lived alone? How horrific to be dead that long and no one find her. What if that happened to me?
Thad pulled up as I continued to dwell on the issue, and I was immediately thankful that someone else was here. I could go back to my house now, forget that I had seen this—yeah, right.
“What’s going on?” Thad asked.
“Jimmy Cosgrove asked me if I’d seen Loretta recently because her mailbox was full. I grabbed her mail and came to check on her. I thought maybe she was sick and just not getting out. When I opened the slider out back, I knew something was wrong, and then I found her in the living room.”
“Did you touch anything in the house?”
“Only the slider handle on the outside, and it’s still open. I rushed out after I saw her and lost my lunch, so be careful around back.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I’d expected him to laugh, but he didn’t. Instead he appeared to steel himself as he began to walk around the side of the house and called over his shoulder, “Why don’t you go back to your place. I’ll be over in a little while to ask you a few more questions once we know what we have.”
As he spoke, another police car pulled up and out climbed our newest chief. I nodded at Thad and waved to Casper as I crossed into my own yard and took a seat on the front porch.
For the next two hours, several emergency responders came and went from the house. The curious neighbors stood off to the side, watching. I was surprised that no one had approached me yet. I wondered if any of them felt guilt, like I did, at not having checked on her.
The county coroner’s office showed up with a van, and even the fire department responded. Nolan acknowledged me with a wave, as did Scott when he came by, but everyone remained quiet and kept to themselves.
The front door had been opened, and a few firefighters came out wearing their masks and air tanks as they rolled the gurney carrying the black body bag out of the house. They paused and removed their masks once they were outside, and the two people from the coroner’s office wheeled her away. I noticed a few of the neighbors bowing their heads as if saying a prayer, or maybe from the weight of guilt.
Thad, Casper, Scott, and Nolan crossed the fifty feet between our houses a few minutes later. For the last two hours, I’d sat on my porch watching everything they did and having a million questions. Now as they stood in front of me, not one came to mind.
“It looks like she’s been dead about ten days,” Scott began, “and, until an autopsy is done, we won’t know for sure what her cause of death was, but we think it might have been a suicide.”
“We found two notes, one to an Aaron, and one to Alice. Do you know who they are?”
“Yeah, Aaron and Alice are her kids.”
Nolan looked surprised, “She had kids?”
“Yeah,” I said dryly, “I remember them from when I was younger. Aaron is a couple years older, Alice was maybe three years younger than me. Their father took them away one night after Loretta had a huge episode.” I paused, “They’ve never been back.”
“Maybe they aren’t alive,” Casper suggested.
“Nah, I know Aaron is. You guys every heard of Aaron Findley, the racecar driver?”
“No shit?” Scott blurted, and I nodded.
“Well, damn, I guess we’re going to need to get in touch with them,” Thad replied with a weighted sigh. He’d told me before how much he hated telling someone that a family member had passed.
“Like they’re going to care,” I muttered. “They left twenty-five years ago. If they cared, they would have come to visit her.”
“We don’t know the circumstances, Levi. We can’t judge,” Thad said, “Well, I guess I will try to find a way to contact Aaron Findley and notify him and his sister of their mother’s death.”