Chapter 4 (Giving up the Ghost)

Chapter 4: the chapter wherein Hero goes to the late Aunt Dee’s home and discovers important papers and is threatened by a vile burglar, but is rescued by Detective Kyle Smyth.

I decided to drive to Dee’s. I didn’t think I could take the walk over, not when every step would remind me of yesterday. 

The drive took about three minutes. 

I parked in the driveway and sat in my car. All of my resolve fled as I looked at the house. I couldn’t seem to make myself move. I stared at the house and its darkened windows.  Dee had never left the house dark. The stained glass window in the front door was always lit up. I assumed the cops had turned out all the lights when they left, but I didn’t like it. It was too dark and too empty looking. 

I glanced at Mrs. Finch’s house and noticed that her lights were on.  And that finally forced me from the car. I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone right now, and if I stayed in the car much longer, she was sure to come out and want to talk. I took a deep breath and quickly walked up the three steps to the porch. I muttered a curse realizing that the cops had turned off the porch light as well. I fumbled with the key, hating the cold, gloom of the porch. 

I stepped inside quickly like I was breaking in or something. I leaned against the door a moment and wondered if I was breaking in. With Dee gone, I had no idea what would happen to her house.  Did she have a will or anything?  I switched on the lights and found the living room exactly as I remembered. The wood floors that stretched throughout the entire house had always made it feel cozy with their warm golden tones.  Now as I took my first step into the house, they creaked and groaned, making me shiver.  My mind was suddenly inundated with memories of a lifetime of ghost stories and scary movies. 

I tried to shake off the haunted feeling by walking farther into the house and turning on more lights. Somehow the lights didn’t seem to chase away the shadows; rather, it felt like they were pools of light in a losing battle with darkness. I told myself to stop being foolish. Nothing sinister was in the house.  But that just reminded me that nothing was in the house. Dee was never coming back to this house.  Without her, I wondered if this house would ever be anything but dark to me.

I stopped at the phone. Dee kept a landline phone on a small table in the living room. I opened a small drawer in the table and pulled out her phone book. Of course, Dee kept a paper phone book. I’d seen the worn, green cloth-covered book a million times, as Dee flipped through it looking for a phone number or address. It wasn’t even a real address book. It was a “scribble book.” It said so on the cover in black cursive script.  But Dee had neatly handwritten in names, phone numbers, and addresses. Most of the entries were even dated. I smiled softly at her organization and stuffed the book in my purse. If I was going to call her friends, I’d need a way to find them.  As I felt my eyes start to burn with tears, I told myself, “Yup, getting stuff done will make me feel better.” 

I continued into the room, and I paused at the mantle.  It was loaded with framed photos, most of them of me at various ages.  I ran my finger lightly over the frame that held a picture of me and Dee at my high school graduation. My eye caught on a picture towards the back of the mantle. I shifted the photos around and picked up the frame.  Inside was a black and white photo of two women.  I knew that one of the women was Dee. Even in the floral print, knee-length dress and hat, I knew her. Her hair was still blonde and curled and pinned up. She looked a bit like a young Lauren Bacall.  I looked at the woman she was standing with my grandmother. She wore a similar dress, but hers was dark. Her hair was styled similarly, but it was clearly naturally curly. I unconsciously touched my own hair, seeing its echo in the photo.  They stood arm in arm in front of what looked like a night club or café.

I squinted looking for a name or marquee but couldn’t find anything. I turned the frame around and opened it. On the back, I could make out Dee’s faded handwriting. It was in pencil. I took the picture over to the lamp, wondering if brighter light would make it more legible. Dorothea and Ellenore, 1945. There was more written, but the light just wasn’t bright enough or maybe the pencil was just too faded. I slid the photo back into the frame and stuck it in my purse.  I could always look at it later. 

I looked over the rest of the photos, now looking specifically for the one of me, and my mother. I must have been about three in the photo, and as far as I knew, it was the only picture of my mother. I shifted the frames around but couldn’t find the photo. I decided that Dee must have moved it; maybe she put it with the photos that lined the hallway.  Maybe she had replaced it with the picture of her and my grandmother, as I’d never seen it before.          

I turned from the mantle and looked over the room.  Like most houses of the era, it was one large living room and dining room separated by a huge framed doorway with built-in shelves on either side. The dining room led to Dee’s office and the kitchen, with its white subway tile and black accents. The large wood table was still set for Sunday dinner. I felt the lump in my throat returning. Seeing the three plates set out, I realized I had no idea why I was at the house. Being here wouldn’t bring her back. Doing stuff wouldn’t bring her back. 

I reminded myself that I needed to look for contact information for the publisher she worked for. She’d worked for them for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t sure what she did for them, some sort of fact-checking or copy-editing. They used to send her a lot of manuscripts, but as she got older the number dwindled to maybe one or two a month. 

I walked into the dining room trying to set my feet carefully still hating the hollow echo of my footsteps in the empty house.  I couldn’t stand looking at the table anymore and moved to stand in front of her office door.  I placed my hand on the knob but didn’t open it.  I’d grown up in this house and had only been in the room a handful of times.  Once right around the time I had started kindergarten.  Dee had shown me some pictures in a book.  I don’t remember what they were or why she showed them to me.  Only that they were old drawings or woodcuts or maybe etchings.  They were old, I knew that much.  She’d asked me questions about them and then put the book away.

The last time I’d been in that room was when she told me that my mother had died. I can still remember sitting in the old wingback chair and looking at the morning glories that grew over the windows while Dee told me about my mother.  She wanted me to know where my mother’s papers were.  That’s what she’d called them, papers.  I guess she meant my mother’s birth certificate or something. 

The brass door know grew warm under my hand, but I just couldn’t make myself turn it.  This was Dee’s room. It wasn’t like Dee forbade my entry into the room; it was just that even as a child I recognized that was her space.  It wasn’t even a real room.  It was a sun porch that ran the length of the house, making it long and narrow. She had bookshelves built along the wall that the room shared with the house.  But I think it was the windows she loved, and the view of the climbing morning glories and wildflowers in the backyard.   

I turned the knob and pushed open the door.  I found the light switch.  The overhead light flooded the small space.  I realized that if Mrs. Finch had somehow missed seeing my car, she would know I was in the house now because, beyond the yard, the sun porch looked at Mrs. Finch’s house.

A quick glance told me the room hadn’t changed much in the years since I had seen it last.  One corner held the dainty Chippendale table that Dee used as a desk.  A matching Chippendale chair was pushed in at the table.  The sleek laptop sitting in one corner of the antique carved mahogany was a strange juxtaposition. I knew she was computer literate, but I’d rarely seen her use one.  I’d always pictured her sitting at an old typewriter that magically connected to the internet, like some steampunk type machine, not a regular old laptop. She’d laughed when I’d told her that, and it made me smile now.

The wingback chair I’d sat in over fifteen years ago was still in the opposite corner.  Its dark burgundy leather upholstery still shone.  I could picture Dee polishing it, or oiling it, or doing whatever it is you do to take care of leather furniture.  She loved these specific pieces of furniture.  She once told me that they were the only things that she had brought when she “came out West.”  She always said “came out West,” like she was part of the Oregon Trail or something.  But I knew that she’d come out to California sometime after World War Two.  I think she came from somewhere in Massachusetts.  Sometimes, I’d hear a hint of that accent when she was tired or had a few drinks.

The massive built-in bookshelves were all closed.  She’d had them installed with doors to keep the sun from fading her books.  I hesitantly took a step inside the room.  It didn’t feel right to be in here.  This was her sanctuary, her personal space.

She had papers out on her desk. They were stacked neatly in the center of the table.  I found myself smiling.  Dee was always organized, and I think it would make her happy to know that no one had seen her house in disarray, even after her death.

I glanced down at the papers on the desk expecting to find correspondence or bills.  I picked up the first page and stared at it my jaw-dropping.  I scanned the page.  Dee had adopted me.  I never knew.  Sure I always told school officials that she was my guardian, but I never realized that she had officially adopted me, but more than that, she had adopted me when I was five, well before my mother had died. I scanned the paper and found my mother’s signature, Thana Dorothea Fortier.  She had given me to Dee years before she died. 

I stared at the paper quickly scanning the information.  The “unfit parent” box was checked.  So, my mother was declared unfit, or had she decided she was?  I had to admit that the box was right.  I had a few sketchy memories of the one summer I lived with her.  I think I was three or four.  I remember a lot of strange people, aging hippy types and a lot of really late nights and sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a living room. 

I remember waking up once with a man talking to me.  I was pretty sure it wasn’t in English.  He was asking me questions and got angry when I wouldn’t answer him.  Thana had stormed in and yelled at him, finally throwing anything that was close at hand at him.  The child me had covered my head and cried at the yelling and crashing objects.  My mother had finally held me and cried with me.  But what I remembered most was her straight, black hair, very Cher in the Sonny and Cher era, covering me like a blanket.  After that, I lived with Dee most of the time.

Why did Dee have my adoption papers out?  I didn’t need to prove she was my guardian at my age.  I riffled through the remaining papers and found my birth certificate, my mother’s birth certificate, and the deed to the house.  “Dee, what were you doing?” I asked the empty room.  I folded the papers and shoved them in my bag.  I hadn’t accomplished what I came here for; in fact, I may have made it worse.  I couldn’t ask Dee what she’d been doing.  I sighed, so much for getting stuff done.  All I’d managed to do was find more mysteries to deal with. 

I glanced at mail stacked neatly in a small basket.  Unlike the tower at my apartment that threatened to topple at any moment, this was only a few pieces.  The top letter bore the embossed logo for Nekyia Press.  Underneath it was a letter from a law office.  I picked up both pieces of mail and shoved them in my bag.  I had no idea why she had these papers out, but it felt like she knew something was going to happen as if she left them for me to find.  Dee what did you know that I didn’t?  Were you sick and you just didn’t want to tell me?

I found myself sitting in the old wingback chair, sinking into it like the chair was hugging me.  I folded my feet underneath me and stared at the office, not really seeing anything.  Dee had to have known something was wrong.  People just didn’t go through old adoption papers and birth certificates for nothing.  Did she leave this out for me, I wondered.  But if she did, I told myself, that would mean she knew… she knew she was going to die.  I felt my shoulders heave with quiet sobs.  If she knew that, why didn’t she warn me?  Why didn’t she tell me what I was supposed to do? 

I stared at the huge windows that had turned into black mirrors in the darkness. Even Mrs. Finch’s house was dark now.  I told myself to get it together.  Maybe something had happened that made Dee think about it…about death.  Maybe one of her friends had gotten sick, maybe something she saw on the news.  But whatever had prompted her to leave these papers out, wasn’t going to be explained by me sitting in her office.

I heard a dog howl.  I felt my hair prickle.  It was the same howl from the L’Ete parking lot.  I squinted at the windows, but could only see my own reflection.  I turned off the light and peered into the night.  Maybe the dog had escaped its yard?  But the small voice in my head screamed, even if it escaped, why is it here?  Dee’s house was far too distant from L’Ete for me to be hearing the same dog.  I couldn’t see much of the front of the house from Dee’s office.  When I heard the howl a second time, I started to shake.

I slowly back out of the office, now wishing I hadn’t turned off the lights.  I shut the door behind me as if it would make the dog stop.  By the third howl, I was ready run from the house.  The house didn’t feel empty anymore.  The shadows had turned menacing, not just sad.     

I realized that I shouldn’t have come alone.  I should have waited for Jenny.  Being here alone was just too much, and it was too soon.  And I was pretty sure I was letting my emotions get out of control.  I was literally standing in an empty house, with my arms wrapped around my chest, shaking over a dog.  I tried to laugh it off; I tried to make a joke to myself.  But I just wanted to leave.     

I heard the floor creak and felt something slam into me.  I saw a flash of light, and then I literally saw stars.  Then I felt the floor on my face.  I watched a pair of heavy black boots traipsing through the house, and then my vision tunneled and I didn’t see anything at all.

***

“Hero?”

I heard someone calling my name and shaking my shoulder.  I cracked my eyes open and saw the floor.  I felt someone shaking me again and heard the crackle of a radio.  I pushed myself up until I was sitting on the floor.  I did a quick inventory and other than a killer headache, I seemed to be ok.

“Hero, are you ok?”

I followed the voice and found myself staring into the concerned, green eyes of Kyle Smyth.  “Kyle?”  I felt his hands on my face as he looked into my eyes.  I flinched a little when he shined a penlight into them.  “What happened?” I paused, “Why are you here?”

He helped me to stand and led me to the couch before answering.  “I was driving by and saw the lights on in the house.  The front door was wide open.  I stopped to make sure everything was ok and found you on the floor.”

“I think someone hit me?” I said, slowly piecing together what happened.  “My head hurts,” I said taking a quick inventory of myself.  I was going to have a bruise on my hip and had a headache, but as I felt around my head I couldn’t find a lump or bruise.  I remembered leaving Dee’s office with the papers she’d left out.  “My purse, is it here?”

 Kyle rose and glanced around.  I heard him open the door to Dee’s office.  “It’s in here,” he called and he came back carrying my bag.  “It doesn’t look like anyone went through it.”  He glanced around the living room, “It really doesn’t look like they stole anything from in here.”

“Stole anything? Who would steal anything?”  I was still checking my head for injuries, but still finding nothing. 

Kyle shook his head, “I’ve already called this in.”  He looked at me another second and went into the kitchen. I listened to him opening drawers and the sound of ice in the freezer.  He came back with a plastic bag full of ice.  “Here,” he said placing the ice against my head.  “This should help.” 

I cringed at the coldness, but it seemed to help, at least with the headache.  “So what happened?” 

“My best guess is that someone noticed all the activity yesterday and realized the house would be empty.  You had the misfortune of being here when it happened.”

I held the ice to my head.  Of all the things to happen, someone randomly breaks into Dee’s house?  And they wait until I’m here to do it?  I grabbed my purse and pawed around the contents.  All of the papers appeared to be there.  Maybe I had left it in the office and the burglar hadn’t found it.  “Why didn’t he take anything?”

“What?”  He looked confused.

I rolled my eyes, “The burglar, why didn’t he take anything?  He went to all the trouble of getting in and knocking me out, why’d he leave with nothing?”

“First, it doesn’t look like he or she broke in.  I don’t think you locked the door after you came in.”  He looked at the door, and I followed his eyes. 

From where I was sitting, the door looked intact.  “Okay, so someone just tried the door?  Does that happen?”

Kyle laughed. “Yes, more often than you’d think.  A smart criminal will generally check the door before breaking a window.  Lots of people forget and leave their doors unlocked.”

I considered this information and found it a little disturbing.  I wondered how many times I’d forgotten to lock my doors in the past.  “Okay, but why didn’t he take anything?”

“My best guess is that you startled him.  He wasn’t expecting to find anyone here.  He came in and based on finding you in the dining room and your purse in that office, you were in the office.  You came out as he was coming in.  It probably freaked him out enough to run off.”

I heard another car pull up out front and glanced at Kyle. 

“That’ll be the uniforms.  Stay here.”  He left out the front door.

I leaned back on the couch.  I realized that I should be freaked out.  I’d just been cracked over the head, or something, in an attempted break-in.  I’d felt pretty calm about everything until Kyle left the room.  Now that I was alone, I started to tremble a little.

I wasn’t trembling in a poor, damsel in distress kind of way, I was pissed.  I was in the house for five minutes and someone breaks in. Dee lived here for forty years and never had a problem.  How dare anyone come into her house? 

I tried to calm down a little and watched the red and blue police lights outside the dark window and frowned.  Wait, it was sevenish when I got here, it can’t be that dark already.  I glanced at my watch and discovered it was well after nine.  That’s two hours gone.  Even on the outside, I’d only been here an hour, hadn’t I?  I remembered going through Dee’s office and my momentary breakdown in the office.  Maybe I’d been sitting lost in my grief longer than I realized. Or, I’d been unconscious a lot longer than I wanted to consider. 

I slowly stood up on unsteady legs.  I kept holding the ice to my head and walked back to Dee’s office.  I pushed the door open and flipped on the light.  Her computer was still sitting on the table, and I’d already taken the papers.  Something under the table caught my eyes.  I knelt down and peered into the shadows.

Dee evidently kept a file cabinet under the table.  It was one of the small two-drawer types, also in mahogany I noticed.  The drawers were both open and the folders were all pulled out.  They’d been shoved back under the table.  Dee would never have left all of this stuff sitting out on the floor.  I slid the first stack of folders out from under the table.  All were carefully labeled in Dee’s meticulous handwriting.  Bills, car, insurance, Nekyia work, important papers.  I opened the important papers folder and wasn’t entirely surprised to find it empty. 

Were the papers in my purse the entirety of the folder, or did someone steal something after all?  I had no idea what was in the file to begin with, so I had no way of knowing what was missing.  I glanced at the inside of the folder and found an itemized list, again in Dee’s handwriting.  How come I can’t be this organized, I wondered picturing my own “filing system” of piles of papers that were threatening to fall over versus those that I could toss more on top of. 

I scanned the list and saw it contained only the papers that had been on top of the table.  Why would anyone want this stuff?  Can my adoption papers really matter to anyone?  Maybe it was some kind of identity theft thing. Stealing birth certificates and bank records and stuff?  Most of the other files appear to have been hastily sorted through, but I’d have to check and hope that Dee kept lists on all of them too.

“Hero?”  Kyle called from the front of the house.

“Back here in the office.”

I listened to multiple feet walking through the house.  I was just standing up when Kyle and a uniformed officer entered the office.

“What are you doing? I told you to wait in the living room!”  Kyle snapped at me.

I stared at him a moment.  “Excuse me, when did you become the boss of me?”  I admit it was a childish retort, but really who did he think he was?  Sure he may have saved my life from a burglar, but who the hell was he to tell me what to do?

Kyle flinched at my tone.  “Sorry, it’s just. I came back and you were gone.” 

I had to admit he sounded pretty contrite and the uniform did his best to not laugh out loud.  “I wanted to see if anything was missing.”  Maybe I should have accepted his apology, but it just irked me that he was acting all high-handed.

“Is anything missing, ma’am?”  The uniformed officer asked.

I glanced at his name tag, Officer Garcia.  “Not that I can tell.  But someone went through my aunt’s file cabinet.”

Officer Garcia shook his head, “Probably an identity theft attempt.  You can rack up a lot of charges before all the death paperwork is processed.”

Kyle elbowed him for what I assumed was his callous use of death paperwork.  “Hero, you should probably sit down.”

I stared at him a second wondering why he was swaying.  When he grabbed my arm, I realized that I was the one swaying.  He led me back to the couch followed by Officer Garcia.

They both let me get settled in before Officer Garcia whipped out his notepad and started asking questions.  I noticed that he asked Kyle almost as many questions as he did me.  It made me wonder about Kyle’s story.  Dee’s street was part of a warren of residential streets, so it was possible that he lived in the area and used this street as a way to avoid traffic. But based on Officer Garcia’s expression and follow up questions, he seemed to find that explanation a little hinky.  According to Kyle, he’d arrived at 8:30, which meant I would have been unconscious for maybe an hour.  He’d checked to make sure I was alive, called for back up, and searched the house.  No one was still inside, but the backdoor was open. 

Garcia carefully noted everything we said.  He asked if I wanted an ambulance or a ride to the hospital.  I shook my head, “Thanks, but I think I’m fine.  And really I can’t stand the idea of sitting in an emergency room for hours.”  I also didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford the bill if I went.  Even if I was bleeding to death, I’d have to try and make it through with aspirin and an ice pack.

Officer Garcia looked like he was going to protest and Kyle rose to put his hand on Garcia’s shoulder and whispered something to him.  For a second, Garcia’s face went blank, just became completely expressionless.   

I wondered what it was about, but my head hurt too much at this point to really care.  I had to figure out if I was comfortable leaving the house empty for the night, or if I was comfortable staying overnight.  Maybe the real question was which option made me the least uncomfortable. 

“Do you want a ride home?” Kyle asked breaking into my thoughts.

I sighed, “I don’t know.  I’m not sure I want to leave the house empty tonight, but I don’t think I want to stay here alone.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back.  It sounded far too much like a come-on.  Please my big, strong rescuer stay and protect me.  I cringed a little on the inside, “I just mean with the break-in, do you think he’ll come back?”  I was stumbling over my words in my haste.   

“I don’t think he’d come back.  It’d be really risky and I’ve got patrol cars coming by here for the rest of the night.”  He stumbled over his words too and kept looking at the floor.  He raised his eyes and noticed I’d lowered the ice pack.  He put it back into place and laid my hand over.

His assurances felt right.  No one would try to break in again.  It would be colossal stupid for anyone to come back and try again.  And besides, he was a cop, a detective, he knew more about criminal behavior than I did.

“I think a ride home would be great.”  Sure he was a cop and seemed nice enough, but I just went from implying he should stay the night to asking him to take me home.  I felt a blush starting to rise.  “Um, do you really think I have a concussion?”  It was a weak change of subject, but I needed to say something.

Kyle cocked his head at me with a slight frown. 

I looked at him blankly.  It seemed like a normal question to me.

“No, I don’t think it’s a concussion.” He paused as if he was considering saying something else, and glanced at Officer Garcia.  It felt like I wasn’t in on the joke.  He went on, “Don’t get offended, but you probably just fainted.”

I scoffed, “I fainted?” I narrowed my eyes at him, “I can take far more than you think.”  I shot back at him.  Oops, did it sound like I was flirting with him, again?

He let his gaze drift over my face.  “I bet you could.” He said softly, his voice thick.

Great, now he was flirting back?  I felt myself blush and we both looked away. 

Officer Garcia spent our exchange looking uncomfortable.  “Ma’am, if you discover anything is missing, please give us a call.”  He mumbled and gave Kyle an annoyed look.  “I’m sure you have Detective Smyth’s number.”  He closed up his notebook and left. 

“We should check the locks and go,” I mumbled feeling like an idiot.  With his looks, he probably got hit on all the time.  But I wasn’t that girl.  I didn’t get all goofy over a pretty face. And I certainly didn’t get swoony over being rescued.  Not that I’d even been rescued.  And I never fainted.

We checked the house.  I took the bottom story and he took the top.  When I checked Dee’s office, I decided to take her laptop with me.  It was really the only thing in the house that was worth some fast cash, but I still didn’t believe that whoever had broken in was looking for cash.  The computer might have the records the bugler was looking for.  We went to his car in silence, and I was glad it was a short drive because I had no idea what to say to him.

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