Between the Living and the Dead by Bill Crider is the 22nd mystery in the Dan Rhodes series where the Texas sheriff finds himself investigating a midnight murder at a local haunted house (available August 11, 2015).
Life is never easy for Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes. When he is called in the middle of the night to investigate gunshots at a haunted house, Rhodes finds the body of meth dealer Neil Foshee. Recently released from jail, Foshee has his fair share of potential murderers, including former girlfriend Vicki, her new boyfriend, the nephew of Clearview's mayor, and Foshee's criminal cousins Earl and Louie.
Complicating matters is Seepy Benton, the community college math professor who has a new summer job. He's founded Clearview Paranormal Investigations and wants to solve the murder by communing with Foshee's ghost. But when Benton connects with something else instead and a second body is found, Rhodes is left with more questions than ever. Who's the dead person? How long has the body been hidden? Is Benton really able to communicate with ghosts? And, most important, what, if anything, does the body have to do with Neil Foshee's death?
Sheriff Dan Rhodes had a feeling he was in trouble when Seepy Benton announced that he had a summer job.
“You’ve given up teaching math?” Rhodes asked.
“No,” Benton said. “I’ve just decided not to teach summer school.”
Seepy Benton, or Dr. C. P. Benton as he was known to his students, taught math at the community college branch in Clearview. He also considered himself an official member of the Blacklin County Sheriff’s Department because he’d gone through a law enforcement academy for the local citizens.
“I thought you liked teaching,” Rhodes said.
“I do,” Benton said. “It’s the best job in the world. I just thought I needed a change, some time to expand and grow.”
Rhodes glanced at Benton’s waistline. “I’d say you’re off to a good start.”
They were sitting at Rhodes’s desk in the county jail early on a warm Tuesday evening in late May. Rhodes had been called to help Alton Boyd, the county animal control officer, deal with a dispute between a couple of neighbors about some dogs. Diane Kelley had accused one Theodore Hertel of stealing four of her dogs. Mr. Hertel claimed that the dogs came over to his house all the time and ate the food intended for his own dogs and that he didn’t want four more mangy hounds hanging around, mooching food, and giving his dogs fleas. He’d called Boyd to pick up the dogs, and when Boyd arrived, Ms. Kelley had shown up and asserted her claim. Boyd had called Rhodes, and between the two of them, they’d straightened things out. Rhodes had stopped by the jail to fill out the paperwork, and Benton had found him there, though Rhodes suspected he’d dropped by hoping to find Deputy Ruth Grady, whom he’d recently started dating. She was on patrol, however, so Benton had settled for Rhodes.
Benton ignored the remark about his waist, which was just as well, Rhodes thought. To tell the truth, Benton was looking better than usual. His beard was neatly trimmed, and so was the half circle of hair that had formerly been rather shaggy. His old straw hat looked as disreputable as ever, though, as it rested on his knees. Benton had a hand on the brim to keep it from slipping to the floor.
“Don’t you want to hear about the job?” Benton asked.
Here it comes, Rhodes thought. “Does it involve investigating?”
Benton looked surprised. “How did you know?”
Rhodes hadn’t known, but he’d been afraid something like this was going to happen. Benton thought of himself as a fine criminal investigator, and he was probably going to set himself up as a private eye. Just what Blacklin County needed.
“Well?” Benton said when Rhodes didn’t say anything more.
Rhodes gave in. “You’ll be sort of like Sam Spade?”
“Oh,” Benton said. “I thought you’d guessed it, but you’re wrong. I’m not going to be a private eye. Try again.”
Rhodes was relieved. At least he didn’t have to worry about Benton nosing into his investigations and trying to solve crimes. He hoped.
“I can’t think of any other kind of investigator,” he said. “You’ll have to tell me what kind you’re going to be.”
“A paranormal investigator,” Benton said.
Rhodes started to say that while Benton wasn’t normal, he didn’t appear to be paranormal, but he knew that wasn’t what Benton had meant. What he had meant sounded to Rhodes as if it might be even more trouble than if Benton had decided to become Sam Spade.
“You’re going to be a what?” Rhodes asked.
“Paranormal investigator. I’m going to open my own office. Clearview Paranormal Investigations. Or CP Investigations. Get it?”
Rhodes got it, but he didn’t want it.
“You gonna be a ghost hunter?” Hack Jensen asked from across the room.
Hack was the dispatcher. He was tall and thin, with a little mustache like the kind worn by characters in 1940s movies.
“Well, you could call it that,” Benton said. “I’ll have to hire a couple of assistants, of course. I can’t do everything alone.”
“Who did you have in mind as an assistant?” Rhodes asked, thinking that it had better not be Ruth Grady.
“Harry Harris, for one,” Benton said. “He’s interested in the paranormal.”
Rhodes didn’t say anything, but Benton must have noticed something in his look.
“All that other stuff is over and done with,” Benton said. “I think Harry and the dean got it all straightened out.”
That “other stuff” was something Rhodes and Benton had discovered in the course of an earlier investigation. Harris had somehow found a way to fake his evaluations in ProfessoRater, an online tool for students. There was also the little matter of his not having reported a dead body he’d seen.
“You think he’ll be reliable?” Rhodes asked.
“Sure. He’s made mistakes, but he’s repented and been scolded by the dean. And by you, too, I believe. Now he just wants to hunt ghosts.”
“We had us a ghost right here in the jail once,” Hack said.
“No, we didn’t,” Rhodes said. He looked at Benton.
“Did so,” Hack said.
Rhodes wasn’t going to get into that kind of argument. “Some of the inmates thought we had a ghost,” he told Benton, “but there wasn’t one. We don’t need you to perform an exorcism or anything.”
“I won’t be doing exorcisms,” Benton said, “but I could locate the ghost for you.”
“There wasn’t any ghost,” Rhodes said. “It was purely imaginary. Like all ghosts.”
“That’s what you’d like us to believe,” Hack said.
“Only because it’s true.”
“If you say so. I remember we looked up jailhouse ghosts on the Internet. Couldn’t find much information, though, just something about some jail in Australia or somewhere.”
“I remember that,” Lawton said, coming in from the cellblock. Lawton was the jailer, and he was Hack’s opposite in appearance, rounder and smoother-faced, though almost as old. “I was hopin’ we had us a real ghost, but I never saw it. You oughta take another look on the Internet, Hack. When we had us that ghost, or thought we did, it was before the Google. Might find more stuff now.”
Hack was already at the keyboard of his computer before Lawton finished talking.
“Lord a-mighty,” Hack said after a few key taps. “Look at this.”
Lawton looked over his shoulder. “Who’d’ve thought it? Look at this, Sheriff.”
Rhodes wasn’t inclined to get up. “Just tell me.”
“I typed in ‘jailhouse ghost’ just like I did the other time,” Hack said. “Guess how many hits it got.”
Rhodes wasn’t inclined to guess any more than he was inclined to get up. He’d already used up his daily capacity for guesses when he’d guessed about Benton’s job. “Just tell me.”
“It’s a mighty big number,” Lawton said, and Rhodes knew he was in for it. Those two couldn’t resist delaying any kind of real answer for as long as they thought they could get away with it.
“Sure is,” Hack said. “A great big one. I don’t think you’d ever guess it, even if you was to try.”
“Just tell me,” Rhodes said.
“Bigger than the population of Clearview,” Lawton said. “Bigger than the whole county. You reckon it’s bigger than the population of Houston?”
“Nope,” Hack said. “Not that big.”
“How many people live in Houston, anyway?” Lawton asked.
“I don’t know,” Hack said, “but it’s a whole lot. I could look it up on the computer.”
“It’s over two million,” Benton said before Hack could click the keys. “So how many hits did you get?”
Rhodes grinned. Lawton and Hack might not tell him, but they wouldn’t play their little game with Benton.
“It’s less than two million,” Hack said.
Or maybe they would.
“It’s over a million, though,” Lawton said.
“One million four hundred and ten thousand,” Hack said, giving in. “About. And you know how long it took to get that many hits?”
“Not long,” Benton said.
“Three-tenths of a second,” Lawton said.
Hack turned away from the computer and gave Lawton a look. “I’m the one who did the Googlin’.”
“I’m the one suggested it,” Lawton said.
“Never mind,” Rhodes said. Those two would argue for the rest of the day if he let them. “That’s a lot of jailhouse ghosts.”
“Some of those hits are repeats,” Benton said. “Maybe most of them. Those don’t count.”
“Still a lot of ’em, no matter how many repeats,” Hack said, turning back to the computer. “Wonder if our ghost is in there.”
“We didn’t have a ghost,” Rhodes said.
“Maybe you did,” Benton said. “Maybe you still do. Why not let me check it out? I have some equipment out in my car.”
“You need equipment to hunt ghosts?” Hack asked. “What kind?”
“More than you might think,” Benton said. “That’s why I’ll need assistants. I can’t carry all of it. You wouldn’t be interested in a second job, would you?”
Hack laughed. “Not me. It’s all I can do to hold down this one. Lawton, now, he could use some work. Get him on his feet, get him some exercise.”
“What?” Lawton said. “Exercise? I’m the one keeps this place clean while you sit in that chair and play solitaire on the computer. If anybody around here needs exercise, it’s you.”
Rhodes cut in again before the argument could start.
“The county won’t let them take second jobs,” he told Benton. “You’ll have to look somewhere else for your pack mules. Now tell us about the equipment.”
“Bet it’s just like Ghostbusters,” Hack said. “Ecto-goggles, ecto-containment unit. All that stuff.”
“And a slime blower,” Rhodes said. “Can’t forget the slime blower.”
“That’s not exactly what I have,” Benton said.
“Next you’ll tell us you don’t have clients who look like that Sigourney Weaver did thirty years ago,” Hack said.
“You seen her lately?” Lawton asked. “Looks just the same. I think she’s some kind of secret servant to Gozer the Gozerian her ownself.”
“If Seepy got hired by somebody looked like that, he’d be in trouble with Deputy Grady, anyway,” Hack said. “Best to stick to clients that look like me and you.”
“Getting back to the equipment,” Benton said.
“Yeah,” Lawton said. “If you ain’t got ecto-goggles, what do you have?”
“Well,” Benton said, “to start with I have a couple of really good flashlights.”
“Heck, ever’body has a flashlight,” Hack said. “What else?”
“I have a digital recorder, the thermal scanner, the motion sensor, and the EMF meter.”
“Hold on,” Hack said. “What’s that last one again?”
“The EMF meter,” Benton told him. “It detects electromagnetic fields.”
“Ghosts are magnetic?”
“It’s not the same thing,” Benton said. “It’s complicated, but let’s just say that there are electromagnetic fields all around us. The presence of a ghost can disturb the field. The EMF meter I have is a combination meter and thermometer, since ghosts can cause a sudden temperature drop in a room or a building.”
“Kinda like the PKE meter the Ghostbusters had,” Lawton said.
“A little,” Benton said. “If there are ghosts around, they might register on it some way or another.”
Rhodes resisted the temptation to say there was no such thing as ghosts. It seemed obvious to him, but it was equally obvious that Benton was serious about all this.
“We don’t want to disturb the customers back in the cellblock,” Rhodes said, “and I really don’t want to get that ghost rumor started again. I think we’ll take a pass on the ghost hunt.”
“You’ve always been a killjoy,” Hack said.
Rhodes nodded. “True, but somebody has to be the voice of reason. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
“You’re not a believer, are you,” Benton said.
“He’s hardheaded, all right,” Hack said.
“I used to be,” Benton said, “until I started reading Stuart Hameroff. He’s a professor at Arizona State, and he uses quantum physics to explain that life after death might be possible.”
“Let me guess,” Rhodes said. “It’s complicated.”
“Not really,” Benton said. “The idea is that there are structures called microtubules in our brain cells and that our consciousness—”
“Never mind,” Rhodes said, holding up a hand to stop the flow of words.
“Microtubules?” Lawton said.
“That’s right,” Benton said. “You see—”
“Never mind,” Lawton said. “I need to stick to simple stuff, like Casper, the Friendly Ghost. Him, I can understand.”
“Figures,” Hack said. “Him bein’ in a comic book and all. That’s about your speed.”
“I guess you know all about microtubes and such,” Lawton said.
“Microtubules,” Hack said.
“Whatever. I guess you know all about ’em.”
“More’n some people I could name. Know as much about Casper as you do, too.”
“Bet you can’t sing the theme song.”
“Can’t bet money.” Lawton indicated Rhodes. “It’s illegal, and the sheriff’s sittin’ right there. Anyway, I’d win.”
“Not a chance,” Hack said, and he launched into an off-key rendition of the theme song from the cartoons. After a couple of bars, Lawton joined in.
Rhodes looked at Benton. “See what you’ve done?”
Benton stood up. “Time for me to make my exit.”
“Me, too,” Rhodes said. “I could use a good night’s sleep.”
“I hope you get it,” Benton said, “and that you don’t have that theme song stuck in your head. Like I do, now.”
* * *
Rhodes was well into his good night’s sleep when the phone beside the bed started to ring.
“Don’t answer it,” Rhodes’s wife, Ivy, said, her voice thick with sleep.
“I have to,” Rhodes said, turning on the light on the nightstand. “It might be an emergency.”
Ivy rolled over onto her back and put her arm over her eyes. “It’s always an emergency.”
Rhodes grinned and answered the phone. It was Hack, calling from the jail.
“Got a little problem,” Hack said. “Deputy Grady can use some backup.”
Ruth Grady was sensible and level-headed. If she said she needed backup, she had a good reason.
“Who else is on duty?” Rhodes asked.
“Don’t matter,” Hack said. “They’re all too far off. This is on the north side of town, where Ruth was patrollin’.”
Rhodes sighed. “What’s the problem?”
“You ain’t gonna believe it,” Hack said.
“Just tell me,” Rhodes said.
“You don’t put much stock in coincidences.”
“Just tell me,” Rhodes said again.
“Much less the other thing,” Hack said.
“Hack,” Rhodes said. “It’s late, and I was asleep. Now tell me what the problem is.”
“Well,” Hack said, “It seems like there’s somethin’ goin’ on at the haunted house.”
Rhodes held the phone away from his ear and looked at it. Ruth Grady was dating Seepy Benton. Rhodes hoped there was no connection between this call and Seepy’s new enterprise. He put it back to his ear and said, “Does this have anything to do with Seepy Benton?”
“Not as far as I know,” Hack said, “but then I don’t know very far.”
Rhodes sighed and said he’d look into it. He hung up the phone and got dressed as quickly and as quietly as he could, but Yancey, the little Pomeranian, woke up and came into the bathroom to see what was going on. The dog was too sleepy even to make a single yip, and because he wasn’t the one who had to go check out a haunted house, he just watched Rhodes for a couple of seconds, then went back into the spare bedroom to get cozy in his doggy bed.
The two cats, Sam and Jerry, were a bit more curious, but not much. Rhodes had thought cats were nocturnal animals, but as far as he could tell, Sam and Jerry enjoyed sleeping just as much at night as they did during the day, and during the day they really enjoyed it. Or appeared to, since that was about all they did.
Sam was solid black, and Jerry was black and white. They purred and rubbed against Rhodes’s legs when he went into the kitchen to get himself a drink of water from the refrigerator before leaving. They didn’t purr and rub for long, however. They’d lost interest in him and lain back down on the floor by the time Rhodes put his empty water glass on the counter. They were both asleep by the refrigerator, and it was as if he’d never been there.
Rhodes got his Kel-Tec PF-9 and ankle holster out of the gun safe in the room where Yancey was sleeping. Yancey didn’t bother to wake up again. The PF-9 was a lightweight pistol with a polymer body that carried seven 9 mm cartridges. Rhodes figured it would provide enough firepower to take down any ghosts he was likely to encounter.
Rhodes left the house by the front door. He didn’t want to go through the back and wake up Speedo, who might start barking and arouse the neighbors, who wouldn’t be pleased.
The county car was in the driveway. Rhodes got in and backed into the street. Turning north, he saw heavy black clouds banked in the sky, blocking the stars. A late-spring norther was on the way, and he hoped it would bring some rain. It seemed as if it hardly ever rained anymore.
A flash of lightning ran down the clouds, and a few seconds later Rhodes heard a dim rumble of thunder. Just the right kind of weather for investigating strange doings at a haunted house.
Rhodes supposed that nearly every small town had a haunted house. There was one in the nearby town of Obert, and Rhodes had experienced a little trouble there a few years back. Not from ghosts, however, and he wasn’t expecting to run into any ghosts tonight, either. Or this morning. The clock on the dashboard said it was a little after midnight.
Clearview’s haunted house was only a couple of blocks from the local cemetery, which was probably one reason it was considered to be the home of ghosts. Another reason was that it had been abandoned for forty years or more. It had belonged to a high school teacher named Ralph Moore, who had died one evening of a sudden heart attack. Because he’d died on the weekend and had few friends, his body hadn’t been discovered until he failed to show up for school on Monday morning. A good many rumors had circulated afterward, all of them gruesome and all of them untrue, as far as Rhodes knew. One story said that the teacher hadn’t had a heart attack but that he’d been killed and mutilated with an ax. Another said that his pet dog had eaten part of his body to avoid starvation.
The stories were magnified in some cases because Moore had died on a Halloween weekend, and trick-or-treaters had horrified each other for years afterward with tales of how they’d stood on Moore’s front porch ringing the doorbell while the dog had been munching on his body parts inside the house.
Another thing that added spice to the stories was the fact that Moore was supposedly an unpleasant character. In an era when teachers felt free to deal out corporal punishment, Moore, at least according to rumors, had dealt out more than his share and enjoyed doing it. He’d been known to sit on his porch with a pellet gun and shoot at dogs and cats that wandered into his yard. And even at the occasional youngster who happened by.
There were other stories, but Rhodes didn’t remember them. Once, not long after he’d first been elected sheriff, he’d looked into the musty old reports on Moore’s death, just out of curiosity. There hadn’t been much of an investigation, but the sheriff at the time hadn’t thought there needed to be one. As it happened, Moore didn’t even have a pet dog. He had a small aquarium with a few fish, but they hadn’t escaped to feed on him. He hadn’t been mutilated, either. The only marks on the body were a few bruises that had probably resulted from Moore’s having fallen when he had the heart attack.
Not that anybody would believe the facts. The rumors were a lot more fun.
As for the stories about his pellet gun and his doling out of spankings at school, no record of those things remained.
Moore’s only kin had lived in some other state. Rhodes couldn’t remember which one. Colorado, maybe. Or Wyoming. Somewhere out west, anyway. They hadn’t wanted the house, but they hadn’t wanted to sell it, either. They’d never come to see it or remove any of Moore’s things. The half block of property it sat on had little value to them or to anyone, but as far as Rhodes knew someone was still paying the taxes on it to keep it from being sold at auction on the courthouse steps. So the old house had stood there, surrounded by its wrought-iron fence, deserted, while people speculated about it and told stories of strange noises and spectral faces at the windows or lights moving past them.
Over the years the stories had become fewer and less often told, until now the house just crumbled away on a lot that was so overgrown with trees and weeds that most people who drove past it probably didn’t give it a glance. Some of them might not even have known the house was there, but every now and then someone would notice something amiss, and the sheriff’s office would get a call.
Like the one tonight. Hack hadn’t been too clear about what the problem was, and Rhodes wasn’t sure whether that was because of Hack’s typical behavior or because Ruth Grady hadn’t known exactly what it was and hadn’t been able to tell him. “Disturbance” was all the information Rhodes had been able to get out of Hack. Rhodes was a little suspicious because of Ruth’s involvement with Seepy Benton, and the old Moore house was clearly the kind of place that Benton would like to prowl through in his new capacity as a paranormal investigator. If there was anywhere in Clearview that was likely to have a few ghosts, the Moore house was the place.
Rhodes saw Ruth’s county car from several blocks away. It was parked at the curb in front of the Moore house, its light bar flashing. Rhodes pulled to a stop behind it, turned on his own light bar, and got out.
The house sat well back from the street. The lot took up most of the block, so no other houses were very close. Across the street was the city water tower, and it had the entire block to itself. The other houses Rhodes could see down the street were all dark. The people inside were getting a good night’s sleep.
Rhodes saw the entrance to the cemetery a couple of blocks away. He’d had an adventure or two there, but he hoped that wouldn’t be the case this time.
Although the thick clouds were still some distance away, a few drops of rain hit Rhodes in the face. Ruth Grady got out of her car and met him. She was short and stocky, and she was wearing a hat. This was one of the times Rhodes wished that he didn’t look so silly in a hat. It would at least keep the rain out of his face. It would also cover up the spot on the back of his head where his hair had thinned, but that didn’t matter so much in the rain.
Ruth held a big tactical LED flashlight in one hand, but she hadn’t turned it on.
“What do we have here?” Rhodes asked her.
“I’m not sure,” Ruth said. “Somebody who was driving by called it in to Hack. The number was blocked, so he doesn’t know who it was. The caller said there were flashing lights in the house, and some gunshots.”
“Hack said there was a disturbance,” Rhodes told her.
“People get disturbed by gunshots.”
Lightning lit up the sky to the north and gave the clouds a momentary glow.
“People are suggestible, too,” Rhodes said. “Haunted house, thunder, lightning reflecting off the window glass.”
“What window glass?” Ruth asked.
Rhodes looked at the house. It was old, nearly a hundred years old, he thought. Two stories tall, with a covered porch on both floors, at least on the front. Rhodes couldn’t see any window glass. The wrought-iron fence was covered with vines and bushes, and trees grew around most of the house, concealing some of the windows. The ones that Rhodes could see all had screens over them. The screens must have been rusted, but Rhodes couldn’t tell that in the darkness.
“Your friend Seepy Benton isn’t in there, is he?” Rhodes asked.
“So you’ve heard about his new job,” Ruth said.
“I have. You think he’s in there?”
“He hasn’t started looking for ghosts yet,” Ruth said.
She sounded doubtful, but Rhodes decided to let it pass. “Have you heard any gunshots since you got here? Seen any flashes of light?”
“No. It’s been quiet. Except for the thunder.”
As she said that, thunder crashed practically overhead, and lightning crackled. The wind started to blow, whipping the trees around the house. An aluminum can bounced and clattered along the street.
“Littering,” Ruth said. “Class C misdemeanor.”
“Probably not for just a can,” Rhodes said. “I’ll go pick it up.”
As he started for the can, rain began to fall in big drops.
“Forget the can,” Rhodes said, changing direction. “We need to get under cover.”
At one time the gate in the wrought-iron fence had been chained and locked, but both chain and lock had long since disappeared. The gate gave a shrill skreeek when Rhodes pushed it open, and he was reminded of an old movie he’d once seen on late-night TV, back in the days when they still showed old movies at odd hours. Cry of the Banshee was the title, and it had starred Vincent Price, which would surprise absolutely no one who’d watched a lot of those old movies. As Rhodes remembered it, things hadn’t ended well for Price.
Rhodes had to break several vines to get the gate open. If there was anyone in the house, they had to find another way in.
The sidewalk was overgrown with grass, with only a few patches of concrete to be seen. Rhodes jogged to the porch and up the three steps to get under the roof. Ruth was right behind him. She had drawn her service revolver and held it in her right hand. The flashlight was in her left. The wind blew rain onto the porch, and they moved closer to the door. Soggy leaves tumbled around their feet.
“Better watch your step,” Rhodes said. “Some of the flooring could be rotten.”
Ruth turned on her flashlight and shined the beam over the porch floor.
“Looks pretty solid,” she said. “They used good wood in these old houses.”
“Be careful anyway,” Rhodes said. “Check the door.”
Ruth turned the light on the door. There was no screen. The top third of the door had three windows. Two of them still had glass in them. On the bottom of the door, the white paint was flaked and peeling. There was no doorknob. Old doorknobs were collectible, and someone had removed it.
Rhodes reached out and gave the door a push. It didn’t move. He pushed harder. The glass rattled in the panes, but the door still didn’t move.
“Stuck,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think anyone got into the house this way, at least not tonight. We’ll have to check the back.”
“I’ll go,” Ruth said. “I have the flashlight.”
Rhodes was pretty sure that “I have the flashlight” meant “You’re too old and decrepit to be wandering around in the dark because you might get hurt.” Or maybe it meant “If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to get under cover, you’d have gotten your own flashlight out of your car.”
It wasn’t something Rhodes wanted to think about too much. Anyway, Ruth was better equipped than he was to enter a house where gunshots might have been fired. She had her revolver, and her duty belt held a collapsible baton, pepper spray, and handcuffs. All Rhodes had was his pistol. He bent over and removed it from the ankle holster.
He straightened, glad that he could do it without his bones creaking, and said, “We’ll both go. You don’t want to go in the house without backup.”
“What if someone comes out the front door?” Ruth asked.
Rhodes touched the door. “It would take a while to get this thing open. If anybody’s in there, we’ll get them before they can get out. As much noise as we’ve made out here, I’d be surprised if anybody was still in there.”
Ruth didn’t say anything. Rhodes listened for sounds inside, but all he could hear was the wind in the trees and the pattering of the rain against the house.
“Rain’s slowing down,” Rhodes said.
“Okay,” Ruth said. “Let’s go.”
“You first,” Rhodes said.
Ruth was already on her way down the steps, the flashlight beam floating over the drenched weeds as she made her way around the house. Rhodes followed, the cold rain soaking his already wet shirt and getting through his shoes to soak his socks as well.
The back of the house was different from the front. The fence was still standing, but the wide gate was off its hinges and lying in the weeds. An old rusted-out Dodge pickup stood there as if it were planted, sunk into the ground almost up to the wheel hubs. The tires, practically indestructible, still clung to the rims, and they’d be around for a long time to come. The truck’s hood was up, and Rhodes suspected that the engine was gone. The skinny hackberry tree growing up through the engine compartment was a clue.
The tracks through the crushed weeds were a clue to something else.
“Somebody’s been here and gone,” Ruth said, shining the light along the tracks. “Not too long ago, either.”
So maybe there had been someone in the house after all, and even though it was clear that a vehicle had left the backyard, they couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t someone still inside.
The back door was missing a top hinge, and it hung open at a slant. Ruth directed the flashlight beam into the interior. Rhodes couldn’t see anything other than what appeared to be an empty room. They approached it with caution, keeping well apart from each other. When they were closer, Ruth was able to illuminate more of the room. It was small, probably an enclosed porch.
Ruth went up the steps, stood at the top, and let the beam roam over the inside, which looked completely bare. She glanced at Rhodes, who nodded. He was pretty sure that anybody who’d been inside was long gone, if not before he and Ruth had arrived, then shortly after the squealing of the gate and the pushing on the front door. It wouldn’t to do take chances, however.
Ruth stepped inside the doorway and walked through the small room to stand on one side of a door leading into another room. Rhodes followed and stood on the opposite side of the door, all too aware of the way his clammy clothing stuck to his body.
“Me first,” Rhodes whispered. “Put the light on the ceiling.”
Ruth turned the flashlight up toward the ceiling of the larger room, giving it some partial illumination. Rhodes went through the door with his pistol at the ready. He saw no one, and no one shot him, so he told Ruth to come on through.
She did and moved the light around the room, which had obviously been a kitchen. The old cabinet doors were all open, and some of them had fallen into the floor. So had a couple of drawers. The cabinets and drawers were empty except for some scraps of browned newspaper that had been used as shelf liner. The stove and sink were gone. The refrigerator was still there, being too old for anyone to steal. Its door was missing. It could have been removed as a safety measure, or maybe someone had thought of a use for it and taken it. Spiderwebs hung from the cabinet doors and in the windows.
The floor was covered with cracked and buckling linoleum. The linoleum was covered with dirt and littered with trash: a few fast-food sacks, soft drink cups and cans, and a couple of candy wrappers. Transients might have spent a night in the house from time to time. Or maybe someone else had. The story about the house being haunted was usually enough to keep people away.
The place had the musty smell that all old deserted houses did, but Rhodes detected another odor in the air, too.
“You smell that?” he whispered.
Ruth nodded. “Gunpowder.”
Just as she spoke, one of the fast-food bags rustled and something scampered across the floor, rustling through other bags as it ran. Ruth didn’t move, but Rhodes twitched. He thought it was a testimony to his own iron nerves that he didn’t blast away at it with the Kel-Tec.
“Mouse,” he said.
“I know,” Ruth said. “Probably a lot of them in here.”
“Beats staying outside in the rain,” Rhodes said, thinking that the mouse didn’t know how lucky it was not to have been blown away by a volley of 9 mm slugs.
Three doorways led out of the kitchen, one to the front of the house and to what Rhodes supposed had been the sitting room, one on the left to what must have been a dining room, and the other to what had probably been a bedroom.
Rhodes inclined his head to his left and said, “Door number one?” He nodded toward the one that opened into the sitting room and said, “Or door number two? Or,” nodding to his right, “door number three?”
Ruth moved toward door number two, which was the one the mouse had fled through. Rhodes thought that was a less than excellent choice, but maybe the mouse had moved on. Ruth waited on one side of the door until Rhodes had positioned himself on the other side.
They stood there and listened. Rhodes heard the trees brushing against the sides of the house and the wind rattling the windowpanes and whining through cracks in the walls. The rain had stoppped.
Rhodes didn’t think anyone was in the house with them. He hadn’t heard the sounds of anyone moving, and nobody had tried a shot at the flashlight. Or at the mouse. They had to follow procedure, though.
“Let’s do it the same way,” he said, and Ruth directed the flashlight beam upward again.
Rhodes slipped around the door and into the dark room, sweeping his pistol side to side, but there was no one to shoot at, and the mouse was either gone or in hiding. The room was empty of furniture, but something lay in the middle of the floor. Rhodes had a bad feeling that he knew what it was.
“Come on in,” he said, and Ruth entered the room, shining the flashlight around. The beam stopped when it came to the lump in the floor, which wasn’t a lump at all.
It was a man. He was quite still, and Rhodes was sure he was dead. Ruth turned the light on the man’s face, and Rhodes sighed.
“You know who he is?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah,” Rhodes said. “I do.”
“You don’t seem surprised to find him like this.”
“I’m not,” Rhodes said.
Copyright © 2015 Bill Crider.
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Bill Crider is the winner of two Anthony Awards and an Edgar Award finalist. An English professor for many years, he's published more than seventy-five crime, Western, and horror novels, including Compound Murder, Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen, Wild Hog Murder and Murder in the Air. In 2010, he was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He lives with his wife in Alvin, Texas.