From the Grave by David Housewright: New Excerpt

A past case comes back to haunt Twin Cities P.I. McKenzie as a stolen sum of money threatens to resurface in From the Grave, the next mystery in David Housewright’s award-winning series.

CHAPTER ONE

The young woman who identified herself as a psychic medium moved with almost absent-minded confidence among the fifty people who had paid forty dollars each for a seat in the community center lecture hall with the hope that she might help them connect with a dead mother or father, uncle or aunt, a dead child—but no promises.

She was tall and slender with shoulder-length hair, high cheekbones, and amber-tinted eyes; if you met her at a party or a in a club you would say, “You should be a model.” Both beautiful and dashing. Even her name had a kind of au courant vibe—Hannah Braaten. At least that’s what Shelby Dunston was thinking when the woman slowly strolled up the aisle toward where she was sitting.

Shelby braced herself. She had come with the hope of connecting with her grandfather, but now she wasn’t sure if she wanted to. What would he tell her after all these years? “Sorry I died on your sixteenth birthday? Sorry that now whenever June Eleventh rolls around your mother and father and aunts and uncles and cousins get sad and mournful?”

Hannah halted two rows from where Shelby was sitting, looked directly into her eyes, and smiled.

Okay, this is why I came, Shelby told herself.

Only Hannah turned her head and looked off toward the people sitting on her left.

“There’s someone stepping forward,” Hannah said. “A woman—oh, this one is a talker. She’s talking a hundred words a minute—Yes, I hear you. Yes … please slow down. Okay, okay.”

Hannah glanced to her right and then to her left.

“Alice?” Hannah asked.

No one responded.

“I’m sorry,” Hannah said. “Alison.”

A woman in her early sixties, Shelby decided, was sitting half a row away. She cautiously raised her hand.

“The woman who came forward, she’s your mother,” Hannah said.

The older woman shook her head as if she didn’t want to believe it.

“People called her Chrissy,” Hannah said. “But it wasn’t short for Christine or Christina. Her real name was Chrysanthemum.”

The woman clasped her hand over her mouth; tears appeared in her eyes as if someone had turned on a faucet.

Hannah clutched the right side of her chest.

“Okay, I feel that,” she said. “Chrissy, I feel that. Alison, your mother died of lung cancer, didn’t she?”

Alison nodded, her hand still covering her mouth.

“She wants you to know—your mother wants you to know, that she’s sorry. She used to always have a cigarette in her hand. She used to wave it around when she talked, and she talked a lot, didn’t she?”

Alison nodded some more.

“Chrissy says she never went more than five minutes without a cigarette. She’s making me smell it. C’mon, Chrissy, don’t do that … She says she’s sorry. She said that everyone smoked back then and that she didn’t know any better. She’s sorry that she left you and your sisters so young. She says—Chrissy, wait, too fast … She says you have to stop blaming yourself. She says—Alison, did you win a writing contest with an essay on the dangers of cigarette smoking?”

Alison nodded her head. She removed her hand from her mouth and spoke softly. Shelby could barely hear her.

“In the eighth grade,” Alison said. “The winners read their essays live on WCCO radio.”

“Chrissy wants you to know that she was very proud of you, not only for the essay but for the woman you’ve become,” Hannah said. “She wants you to know that you can’t blame yourself for not trying harder to make your mother quit smoking and that she’s sorry she didn’t pay closer attention to your essay. But you have to remember that she was the parent and you were the child. She was responsible for you, but you weren’t responsible for her. You would tell her, ‘Don’t smoke anymore, Mama,’ and she’d say, “Yeah, yeah,” and keep doing it anyway. That’s her mistake, not yours. She says—oh, you have a daughter that’s named after a flower, too. Poppy. You named your daughter Poppy.”

Alison nodded her head vigorously.

“Chrissy said that the poppy was her favorite flower.”

“I know,” Alison said.

“That’s why you named her Poppy.”

Alison nodded again.

“Chrissy says thank you. And she says—wait—okay—she knows that Poppy is pregnant again. Things didn’t go well the last time.”

“She miscarried,” Alison said.

“Chrissy says not to worry about a thing. She says it’ll go perfectly this time. Expect another baby girl. She says she’s been watching over Poppy and—and she’s been watching over you and your two sisters and your two daughters and your four nieces and nephews all these years and she’s going to keep at it.”

“I’ve often felt like she was with me,” Alison said.

“She always will be, too.”

Alison bent forward in her seat and began weeping. The woman sitting closest wrapped her arms around her; Shelby didn’t know if they’d come together or not.

Hannah retreated back down the aisle and began moving up the next.

 

Shelby shifted in her chair, tucking her long legs beneath her the way she does. She was surrounded by multiple strings of Christmas lights, and they gave her a playful appearance, although she wasn’t happy at all.

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

“So you know that she’s legitimate,” she said. “So you know that Hannah Braaten is the real thing, that she’s not a phony.”

“I don’t know that.”

“She knew Chrissy’s name and that it was short for Chrysanthemum and that she died of lung cancer. She knew Alison’s name and that she wrote the antismoking essay. She knew about Alison’s daughter, the number of her sisters and her daughters and the number of her nieces and nephews.”

Nina Truhler was sitting next to me on the sofa in the Dunstons’ living room, her legs tucked beneath her just like Shelby’s. That’s where the resemblance ended, however. They could swap their size four/six dresses, and had on rare occasions, yet while Shelby had shoulder-length wheat-colored hair and eyes the color of green pastures, Nina had short black hair and the most startling silver-blue eyes I had ever seen.

She leaned forward, retrieved a long-stemmed wineglass from the coffee table, and said, “Facebook,” before taking a sip.

“I know you don’t believe in an afterlife,” Shelby said.

“I do believe in an afterlife,” Nina said. “At least I want to. I want there to be a heaven because if there’s a heaven than there’s a hell and people like Putin and al-Assad and Kim Jong-un and the president will get what’s coming to them. I just don’t believe in ghosts.”

“How can you not believe in ghosts? Your jazz club is haunted.”

“Rickie’s is not haunted, and I wish people would stop saying that.”

“Your own daughter…”

“Erica was pranking me.” Nina turned toward me. “That’s what the kids call it, pranking?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Erica was pranking me. She was pranking all of us. It was her going-away gift before she went off to Tulane University.”

“I don’t even know exactly what a psychic medium is,” I said.

“A medium can talk to the dead,” Shelby said. “A psychic can tell you what’s going to happen a week from Thursday. A psychic medium can do both.”

“If that were true, wouldn’t they all be making millions of dollars betting basketball games in Vegas?”

“It’s more personal than that.”

“Besides,” I said, “why would you care if I believe this woman—what’s her name?”

“Hannah Braaten.”

“What do you care if I believe that this woman is legitimate?”

Shelby cast a worried glance at her husband.

Robert Dunston was the best cop I had ever known—much better than I was. We started together at the St. Paul Police Department nearly twenty-five years ago. I retired to accept a reward on a rather ambitious embezzler—$3,128,584.50 before taxes—that a financial wizard named H. B. Sutton had more than doubled for me over the years. The plan was to give my father, who raised me alone after my mother died, a comfy retirement. Unfortunately, he passed six months later, leaving me both rich and bored. Meanwhile, Bobby stayed with the SPPD, eventually moving up to commander in the Major Crimes Division, mostly running the Homicide Unit. Still, Bobby didn’t look like a cop while dressed in his Minnesota Wild hoodie and sipping a Grain Belt beer. He looked like a guy watching a movie that he already knew the ending to.

“Oh, it gets better,” he said.

 

Hannah Braaten continued to move up the aisle.

“There are a lot of people who want to talk,” she said.

A son who died of a drug overdose told his parents that they shouldn’t blame themselves, that it was all on him. “I’m the one who messed up.”

A man who suffered a sudden cardiac death while playing hockey with his brother admitted that he should have taken better care of himself and that his passing was no reason for his brother to give up the game.

“Who’s Cornelius?” Hannah asked.

A young man in the front row stood up.

“I have your grandfather here,” she said. “He says he’s sorry you got stuck with his name; it wasn’t his idea that your father name you that. He says he hopes the money he left you in his will made up for it.”

The young man smiled broadly and said, “A little.”

“Your grandfather, he also says that when he passed he was in the hospital and you couldn’t get there in time to see him off. He says he knows that you feel terrible about it. He says if he knew you were going to feel so bad he would have hung on a little bit longer, but your grandmother was calling him, so he had to go. Please know, Cornelius, that there’s no reason for you to feel guilty. It doesn’t matter to your grandfather. You were his first grandchild, and he loved you best of all, but you’re not to repeat that to your sisters and cousins. He says you and he will get together in about sixty years and play dominos and watch baseball and everything will be wonderful.”

Cornelius started sobbing uncontrollably as the woman next to him attempted to comfort him by rubbing his back.

 

“She was very specific,” Shelby said. “She didn’t ask if the letter S meant anything to anyone or if someone had a grandfather who recently passed or anything leading like that. She knew exactly who was talking to her and for whom the message was meant.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Just so you know.”

“Okay.”

 

Hannah moved to the front of the small lecture hall again and started drifting to her left. She passed a young, serious-looking woman who was jotting notes on a pad fixed to a clipboard. She grinned slightly and shook her head like a professor might to a student in a lecture hall who was keen on recording every word the instructor said without considering what they meant.

“A woman—oh, she is so very pretty,” Hannah said. “She wants—Ryan, are you here?”

In the back of the room a man stood. Shelby placed him in his late thirties. He looked like he had worked out every day of his life.

“My name is Ryan,” he said.

“Your mother died when you were twelve-years-old.”

“Yes,” Ryan said.

“Her name was Judith,” Hannah said.

“Yes.”

“People called her Judy.”

“Yes.”

“She wants you to know—wait. There’s someone pushing past her. Someone—he won’t tell me his name. He, he, he won’t—he doesn’t, he doesn’t have positive energy, it’s all black. He was kinda mean. Cruel even. Narcissistic. He cared only about himself. Yes, I mean you. Who do you think—he’s pushing the woman away. He wants—he keeps repeating numbers. One one eight eight zero zero four one. I don’t know what that means. He keeps repeating them. One one eight eight zero zero four one. Does anyone know…?”

“That’s me,” Ryan said.

“You?”

“I’m one one eight eight zero zero four one.”

“I don’t know what that means. Oh.”

Hannah brought her hand to her head.

“Oh God, that hurts,” she said. “Something about his head.” She brought her other hand to her head, holding it as if she were afraid it would fall off. “He hurt his head. I don’t know how. He’s hiding things. He’s hiding … What? What is it?”

Ryan slid along the row until he was standing in the aisle. One slow step at a time he approached the psychic medium.

“Stop,” Hannah said. “Stop it. Oh, that hurts, my head hurts so much … He’s showing me something. He showing—it’s money. He’s showing me money. A lot of money. Bags filled with money. Canvas bags with leather straps and a name on the bag … He won’t let me see the name. He’s hiding … Stop hurting me. He’s repeating the number again. One one eight eight zero zero four one.”

“I’m here,” Ryan said. “Tell him that I’m here.”

“He says the money is safe. He says it’s all for you, it’s all yours.”

“Where is it? Where did he hide the money?”

“He won’t, he won’t—he won’t let me see. He won’t … My head hurts so badly. I need to stop this.”

“No, please,” Ryan said. “Tell me where he hid the money first.”

“The woman—Judy—she’s trying to get past him, but he won’t let her. He’s showing me a brick. I don’t know. Stubborn as a brick. I don’t know. She’s telling him to stop hurting you, that he’s hurt you enough already but—the man, the man, he’s not, he’s not … A name. Now he’s repeating a name. Oh, it hurts.”

When he was talking about his mother, Ryan seemed like an average-looking guy, Shelby decided. A little more fit than most. Now he seemed almost crazed. As he approached Hannah, most of the people left their seats to move away from him. Hannah didn’t seem to notice how close he got until he shouted at her.

“Where’s the money?”

Hannah’s hands came off her head, and she stared at Ryan as if she had never seen him before.

“McKenzie,” she said. “He keeps repeating the name McKenzie.”

 

“Wait, what?” I said.

 

“Who’s McKenzie?” Hannah asked. “No, no…”

She was staring directly into Ryan’s eyes when she brought her hands together and then flung them outward as if she were attempting to shove a cloud away.

“No,” Hannah said again. “I’m shutting this down.”

“Where’s the money?” Ryan asked.

“I need you to leave. I need you to leave right now.”

Ryan grabbed the woman by her shoulders and shook her. “Where’s the goddamned money? If you think you can keep it for yourself…”

Most of her audience backed away or stood perfectly still. Shelby rushed forward.

“Leave her alone,” she shouted.

 

“That’s my girl,” Bobby said.

 

Before Shelby could reach them, however, a couple of guys, possibly prompted by Shelby’s shouts, stepped in.

“What do you think you’re doing?” one of them asked.

Ryan’s response was to release Hannah, pivot toward the man, and shove him hard enough that he fell backward against the auditorium seats. The second man froze and, no doubt, began reevaluating his life choices. Shelby kept moving.

“Are you crazy?” she shouted.

Ryan looked at her as if he might be wondering the same thing.

He spun back toward Hannah, who was backing away from him.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said. “I—I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He turned and walked swiftly to the exit.

Shelby reached Hannah and wrapped her arms around the younger woman.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Hannah accepted her comfort, yet only for a few moments.

“That happens sometimes.” Hannah eased herself out of Shelby’s arms and spoke to the crowd. “The dead are pretty much the way they are in life. Nice people are nice. Terrible people are terrible. They have nothing positive to say until they go to the other side and take responsibility for their actions, and sometimes it takes a long time for them to get clear of all that, depending on the extent of their sins. I believe we’re made to feel everything that we made others feel. That’s why some people won’t go to the other side. They’re afraid they’ll be judged and punished, that they’ll be held accountable. Some of them don’t even know they’re dead. But he knew…” Hannah’s hand went to her head. “He knew. I’m sorry, but I think we need to call it quits for the evening.”

People began filing out of the auditorium. No one asked for a refund; no one seemed disappointed that they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Shelby remained behind. She waited until they were quite alone except for the young woman still writing feverishly on her clipboard.

“Hannah,” she said, “why did the dead man chant McKenzie’s name?”

“I really can’t say. Most people in our profession follow a code of ethics about the information we disclose…”

“Where’s the money?” Ryan asked.

“I need you to leave. I need you to leave right now.”

Ryan grabbed the woman by her shoulders and shook her. “Where’s the goddamned money? If you think you can keep it for yourself…”

Most of her audience backed away or stood perfectly still. Shelby rushed forward.

“Leave her alone,” she shouted.

“That’s my girl,” Bobby said.

Before Shelby could reach them, however, a couple of guys, possibly prompted by Shelby’s shouts, stepped in.

“What do you think you’re doing?” one of them asked.

Ryan’s response was to release Hannah, pivot toward the man, and shove him hard enough that he fell backward against the auditorium seats. The second man froze and, no doubt, began reevaluating his life choices. Shelby kept moving.

“Are you crazy?” she shouted.

Ryan looked at her as if he might be wondering the same thing.

He spun back toward Hannah, who was backing away from him.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan said. “I—I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He turned and walked swiftly to the exit.

Shelby reached Hannah and wrapped her arms around the younger woman.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Hannah accepted her comfort, yet only for a few moments.

“That happens sometimes.” Hannah eased herself out of Shelby’s arms and spoke to the crowd. “The dead are pretty much the way they are in life. Nice people are nice. Terrible people are terrible. They have nothing positive to say until they go to the other side and take responsibility for their actions, and sometimes it takes a long time for them to get clear of all that, depending on the extent of their sins. I believe we’re made to feel everything that we made others feel. That’s why some people won’t go to the other side. They’re afraid they’ll be judged and punished, that they’ll be held accountable. Some of them don’t even know they’re dead. But he knew…” Hannah’s hand went to her head. “He knew. I’m sorry, but I think we need to call it quits for the evening.”

People began filing out of the auditorium. No one asked for a refund; no one seemed disappointed that they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Shelby remained behind. She waited until they were quite alone except for the young woman still writing feverishly on her clipboard.

“Hannah,” she said, “why did the dead man chant McKenzie’s name?”

“I really can’t say. Most people in our profession follow a code of ethics about the information we disclose…”

“You don’t understand. I’m pretty sure I know McKenzie. I know him very well.”

Hannah stared at the woman for a few beats as if trying to judge her honesty. The woman with the clipboard stopped writing.

“What’s his profession?” Hannah asked.

“I have no idea what to call him now, but McKenzie used to be a police officer like my husband.”

Hannah grabbed Shelby’s wrist and squeezed hard.

“He’s in danger,” she said. “If you are really his friend, you must tell him, he’s in danger.”

“Why? What kind of danger?”

“The man, the dead man, he wanted Ryan to kill McKenzie. He said that he would tell Ryan where he hid the money, but only if he killed McKenzie first.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Nina took another sip of wine, then leaned forward and set the glass on the table. After she straightened up she looked and me and said, “It’s always something with you, isn’t it?”

“Me? How is this about me?”

“The dead man singled you out by name,” Shelby said.

“There are plenty of people with the name McKenzie; most of them spell it differently. Bobby, remember the gypsy Ian brought to hockey a couple of weeks ago? He claimed that we were descendants from the same clan in Scotland until he found out I spelled my name M-C and he spelled his M-A-C.”

“How many of them were police officers?” Shelby asked.

“I’m guessing a lot.”

I glanced at Bobby for confirmation. He gave me what I referred to as his ignorance-apathy shrug, the one that said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” And I thought, He’s left us again. At any given moment only half of Bobby’s brain was fixed on the here and now. The other half was working a case. I was convinced he was thinking of Ruth Nowak, who was listed as a missing person, but who we all knew was dead. You don’t wander away from your comfortable Crocus Hill home into an icy Minnesota winter night without your coat, without even your purse. ’Course, Bobby couldn’t prove that she’d been murdered. Yet. Not without a body. Not without other physical evidence. But he knew. He also knew that her husband, Robert, who had proven himself to be very adept at giving teary-eyed interviews to the local TV news stations, was probably the one who killed her.

Shelby ignored her spouse. She lowered her eyes and spoke in the voice that she used when she warned her pretty teenage daughters about men. I had met her in college, met her, in fact, just a few minutes before Bobby had, and loved her every way it was possible to love a woman without actually touching her ever since. I knew when she was serious.

“McKenzie, last night I heard a dead man put a price on your head,” she told me.

“A ghost,” Nina said.

“Whatever. I would think, I would wish, that you’d be a little concerned. Do you think I’m making this up? Do you think that I’m pranking you?”

“No,” I said.

She glared at Bobby. “Do you?” she asked.

“Hmm? No, but…”

“But what?”

“Honey, we’ve had this discussion before. I’m a law enforcement professional. I deal in facts. Facts you can see and hear and touch; facts that can be proven by science. Facts that you can take to court. What you’re telling us, these are not facts, and even if they were, what do you expect me to do about them?”

“You, nothing.” Shelby pointed at me. “But you…”

“What?” I asked.

“Don’t you care that a dead man is threatening your life?”

“Okay, a couple of things. Thing one—I don’t know that he’s threatening my life. Thing two—what’s he going to do? Hide my car keys? Drag chains across the floor of our condo?”

“Hardwood floors,” Nina said. “He had better not leave a mark.”

“You’re missing the point,” Shelby said. “It doesn’t matter if you believe it. What matters is if Ryan believes it, or someone else that the dead man might contact.”

Bobby waved his beer in his wife’s direction. “There are a lot of nut jobs out there,” he said.

“Excuse me?” Shelby said.

“I’m agreeing with you, honey. McKenzie, you should be careful.”

Nina laughed. “I’ve been telling him that for years,” she said. “Does he listen?”

“You guys are making fun of me,” Shelby said. “I asked you to come over tonight so I could help you, so I could warn you, and you’re making fun of me.”

“We are not,” I told her.

“What was the name of the embezzler that you collared?” Bobby asked.

“Thomas Teachwell. Last I heard he was alive and well and living in a cabin on Lower Red Lake, the same cabin where I caught him. He moved there after doing eight and two-thirds at Oak Park Heights.”

“It needs to be someone who’s dead,” Shelby said.

“That doesn’t mean I killed him, does it?”

“No, I guess not. Just someone you made angry.”

Both Bobby and Nina laughed at the same time.

“That’s a long list,” Bobby said.

“Are you kidding?” Nina said. “Half the time he makes me angry.”

“I’m at like eighty percent,” Bobby said.

Shelby folded her arms across her chest and glared.

“Now you’re making me angry,” she said.

Something about the way her green eyes sparkled took me back to that day in college, to the party that we had all attended.

Dammit, Bobby, my inner voice said. How different would life be if I had been the one who spilled that drink on her dress instead of you?

“I’m sorry,” I said aloud. I meant it, too. “You’ve always been my very good friend.”

We all sat like that for a few moments, everyone staring at everyone else, until Shelby herself broke the silence.

“My mom wanted me to thank you again for the gift you gave her on her seventieth,” she said. “She said it was the best birthday present anyone has ever given her.”

“She’s very welcome,” I said.

“I have to admit, that was pretty clever,” Bobby said.

“What gift?” Nina asked.

“My mother-in-law loves to go to the casino in Hinckley and play the nickel slots,” Bobby said. “It’s her chief form of entertainment. So, McKenzie gave her a hundred dollars’ worth of nickels.”

“It came in rolls packed in a box,” Shelby said. “It looked like a big brick.”

“It weighed twenty-two-point-five pounds, which doesn’t sound heavy until you carry it for her,” Bobby said.

Nina gave me a nudge. “You’ve never given me a brick of nickels,” she said.

“I gave you a baby grand piano.”

She dismissed me with a wave of her hand and a noise that sounded like the word “pooh.”

“Really?” I said.

“All I can say—Christmas is coming. I expect you to step up.”

 

It was cold when Nina and I left the Dunston house, the house where Bobby grew up. He bought it from his parents when they retired. It’s also where I practically grew up after my mother died when I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t have a family except for my father after that, and the Dunstons had all but adopted me. Or maybe I had adopted them.

The temperature had dipped to twenty degrees, which was about average for 10:00 P.M. in the Cities during the first week of December. There was no snow on the ground, though, and usually we’d have at least a foot by now. Some people were actually concerned that we might not have a white Christmas. I wasn’t one of them. It was Minnesota, for God’s sake. Snow was coming. It was always coming.

We climbed into my Mustang GT, which Nina had given to me on my birthday, thank you very much, and I started it up.

“Where to?” I asked.

“We could go back to the condo, set a fire in the fireplace, turn off the lights and get cozy on the sofa…”

“Hmm.”

“And wait for the Ghost of Christmas Past to appear.”

“A viable option.”

“Or we can go to Rickie’s and catch Davina and the Vagabonds playing their last set.”

“They always sell out. Can we get a seat?”

“I know the manager.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, we strolled through the front entrance of the club on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul that Nina had named after her daughter, Erica. Jenness Crawford met us at the door.

“Hey, boss,” she said.

Nina held up her hands as if she were surrendering. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not here to check up on you. We just dropped by to grab a drink and listen to Davina.”

Jenness knew Nina’s penchant for managing the club every minute of every day, which she’d done since she opened its doors twenty years ago, and said, “I don’t believe you.”

Nina hugged her manager’s shoulder and glanced around. Rickie’s was divided into two sections, a casual bar on the ground floor with a small stage for happy hour entertainment and a full restaurant and performance hall upstairs. The bar was crowded for a Wednesday evening, and the customers seemed to be in a festive mood. Perhaps the Christmas decorations had something to do with it. Our condominium had only a few, but Rickie’s was loaded with them.

“How are things going, anyway?” she asked.

“See?” Jenness said. “I told you.”

“Seriously, everything good?”

“We had another incident in the basement.”

Nina stepped away and glared at her manager as if that were the very last thing she had wanted to hear.

“You asked,” Jenness said.

“Let me guess, someone turned off the lights again.”

Jenness held up two fingers. “Twice,” she said.

“It’s a problem with the wiring.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Rickie’s is not haunted.”

“No, ma’am.”

Nina spun toward me.

“Do you have anything to say?” she asked.

“Not a word,” I told her.

Nina went to the bar. She returned with a Rekorderlig, a hard cider imported from Sweden that she had become addicted to during our last trip to Europe, and a Summit Extra Pale Ale for me, and led the way up the red-carpeted staircase to the performance space upstairs. We found a tall table against the wall in the back of the room with fair sightlines and good sound and settled in.

Davina and the Vagabonds was a terrific blues band that combined Memphis soul with New Orleans charm. They channeled everyone from Fats to Louis to Aretha. Their best tunes, though, were the ones that Davina Sowers wrote herself—“Black Cloud,” “Sugar Moon,” “Bee Sting,” “Sunshine,” “Red Shoes.” And no Christmas songs; thank you, Davina! As much as I enjoyed their sound, though, I couldn’t shake Shelby’s story out of my head. My mind began to wander.

Is there really a dead guy trying to buy a hit on you? my inner voice asked.

Stop it, I told myself. Listen to the music.

Money bags—why is that familiar?

Where would you keep your money if you were a ghost?

A secret room inside a haunted house?

Sure.

How ’bout a haunted jazz joint?

During the pause between numbers Nina said, “Are you thinking about what that psychic medium said? That’s kind of nuts, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.”

Still, while Davina and her band were cutting loose on “Shake That Thing,” I slipped a pen from my pocket and started doodling on a napkin. Nina noticed and said nothing. She knew it was something that I did when I couldn’t stand up and pace.

It was while Davina sang I’ve got a feeling something ain’t right, I don’t know what to do, that I wrote out the numbers one one eight eight zero zero four one.

The dead man was chanting these numbers, my inner voice told me. And Ryan said it was him, that he was one one eight eight zero zero four one. What did that mean? Was this his Social Security number?

No, a Social has nine digits, I reminded myself.

A passport?

A U.S. passport also has nine numbers.

A cell phone?

That’s ten.

I kept running the pen over the numbers one at a time, doubling their size. I was starting on the second zero when I stopped and stared. The way the numbers appeared on the napkin, 1 1 8 8 0 0 41, prompted me to add a dash so that it read 1 1 8 8 0—0 41.

“Damn,” I said.

Nina leaned in.

“Shhh,” she said. “What?”

I lowered my voice to a whisper and said, “Every inmate sentenced to a federal prison is assigned a five-digit identification number plus a three-digit suffix. A register number, they call it. Anyway, the suffix is the code number of the district where the inmate was processed into the federal correctional system. There are a hundred districts. Well, ninety-eight, to be precise. The code for the District of Minnesota is zero four one.”

“You think this Ryan guy that Shelby told us about was a federal prisoner?”

“Let’s find out.”

Rickie’s had very good Wi-Fi, and it was easy for me to pull out my smartphone, access a search engine, and call up the website for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The website included a Find an Inmate app that allowed anyone armed with the right names or codes to locate the whereabouts of any inmate incarcerated in a federal prison since 1982. It took me a minute because the screen was small, the keyboard was smaller, and I was all thumbs, yet I managed to type in the number and hit SEARCH.

About fifteen seconds later, I was told that Ryan Hayes, a thirty-nine-year old white male, had been transferred a dozen years ago to the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota, a low-security prison for male offenders located about a hundred miles northeast of the Twin Cities, where he served the remainder of his sentence. The “Release Date” field indicated that he had been discharged from BOP custody last May.

Davina and her boys were swinging on “St. James Infirmary,” one of my favorite tunes, when I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and said, “That’s an unexpected coincidence.”

“What?” Nina asked.

Nina must have read the screen of my smartphone to get her answer, because a few moments later she leaned in close again and whispered in my ear, “Do you know this man, this Ryan Hayes?”

“We’ve never met,” I said. “But I had dealings with his father, Leland Hayes. I’m the one who shot him in the head.”

 

Copyright © 2020 David Housewright.


About From the Grave by David Housewright:

Once a police detective in St. Paul, Minnesota, Rushmore McKenzie became an unlikely millionaire and an occasional unlicensed private investigator, doing favors for friends. But this time, he finds himself in dire need of working on his own behalf.

His dear friend and first love Shelby Dunston attends a public reading by a psychic medium with the hope of connecting with her grandfather one final time. Instead, she hears McKenzie’s name spoken by the psychic in connection with a huge sum of stolen—and missing—money.

Caught in a world of psychic mediums, with a man from his past with a stake in the future, and more than one party willing to go to great and deadly lengths to get involved, McKenzie must figure out just how much he’s willing to believe—like his life depends on it—before everything takes a much darker turn.

Learn More Or Order A Copy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *