She knew she was being petty, and she realized it was her own fault she had nothing to wear that both fit her and was suitable for work. As her pregnancy had progressed, she had taken to wearing her looser clothes, but as of the last few days, even those no longer fit her comfortably. Diana had dropped off a box of her own maternity clothing while helping them move the previous weekend, but the designer lavender outfits covered with ruffles and bows that had been suitable for a twenty-year old homemaker weren’t exactly suitable for a twenty-five year old private detective.
He ignored her irritation and kissed her cheek. “I seem to remember it took both of us, baby. But I have something for you that might help.”
“How?” She asked, raising her eyebrows. “I’m slowly but surely turning into a whale for the next five months. We’ve just been so busy with the move that I’ve put off shopping for maternity clothes, and now I wish I hadn’t. Di meant well by lending hers to me, but I can’t exactly wear them to work, either.”
“First of all, you’re not turning into a whale,” he told her. He put his hand on her growing abdomen. “You’re carrying our child, and you’re growing more beautiful everyday.”
Her gaze softened, and she relaxed against him. “That still doesn’t solve my problem, Dell. I have to be at the office in less than an hour. Honey and I have a meeting with a client at ten, and then a meeting with Wilhelmina James at one. If she was our morning appointment, I could go at lunch, but she’s not, and I don’t have time to shop this morning. What am I going to do?”
“Be thankful I know you so well?” he asked, with a grin. He pushed aside his uniforms and removed a shopping bag that he had hidden back there. Giving it to her, he added, “I had a feeling this might happen, and I wanted to surprise you. It should fit, but if not, hopefully it will at least work for your meetings today.”
She opened the bag and pulled out a navy blue maternity pantsuit without a single bow or ruffle on it anywhere. Her face lit up, and she threw herself back into his arms. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!!”
“Wow. I can’t picture him clothes-shopping for you,” Honey said with a smile. Their ten o’clock meeting had just ended just before noon, and Trixie had explained the origin of her new outfit while they waited on Bobby to arrive with their lunch.
“I know,” she grinned. “He likes shopping even less than I do, and that’s saying something.”
The door opened, and Bobby walked in carrying two takeout bags from Wimpy’s. He put the food down on Honey’s desk as it was closest to the door and turned back to hold the door open for someone else behind him. To her surprise, their oldest cousin, Knut, came inside. He walked slowly and with a limp that would forever be as a part of him, just as he would always bear the scars that crossed his shoulder and back. The brightly colored polo shirt that hid his scars stood in stark contrast to his pale, haggard face, and Trixie’s smile turned to a frown of concern as she waved him to the chair in front of her desk. “Knut? Are you okay?”
“Just tired,” he assured her, walking around the desk to hug her before he finally sat down. “It was a long flight, and I couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep well on the plane. Nothing a really long nap back at Crabapple Farm won’t cure. I hope you don’t mind that Bobby invited me to horn in on your lunch.”
“Of course not,” she assured him. “We have a client coming in at one, but until then, we’re free. I suppose I should officially welcome you to Sleepyside.”
Knut gave a small smile. “Yeah. Everything happened so quickly, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet that I’m here to stay.”
For Knut Belden, the previous ten months had been a never-ending nightmare. An unwise investment in a friend’s scientific venture had led to him being viciously attacked by the subject of his friend’s study. Months of healing and rehab had morphed into months of governmental scrutiny and federal charges due to his involvement in the scientist’s illegal experiments. Although the government itself had kept the exact nature of the charges classified, there had been enough negative publicity that he had lost his position with the financial brokerage firm that had employed him since his graduation from college.
He had taken Mart’s suggestion to fly out for Bobby’s graduation, never dreaming that Mart had gotten him interviews with both Wheeler International and Lynch Enterprises nor that they would lead to offers for jobs far better than the one he had lost. In the end, he had taken a position with Wheeler International and had accepted his Uncle Peter’s invitation to live at Crabapple Farm until he was able to get back on his feet.
“He has an interesting story to tell,” Bobby said, passing out the cheeseburgers and fries he had picked up on their way into the office. “I thought you might want to hear it.”
“Definitely,” Trixie said, unwrapping her lunch. “What happened?”
“I suspect I’m just paranoid,” he admitted. “As you know, my flight left Spokane yesterday afternoon. As much as I hate to admit it, Dad paid to upgrade my seat to first class so that I would be able to stretch my legs on the flight. The thing is that I noticed a strange looking woman in the airport. Dressed in black from head to toe – even more than Hallie did when she went through her goth phase.”
“Hallie was a goth?” Bobby asked incredulously.
“Briefly,” Knut said. “For a while, it seemed she was going through a new phase every other month or so. But anyway, I wouldn’t have thought anything of this woman at the airport if she hadn’t gotten on my flight.” He sighed. “Actually, it’s not even that. I was a little surprised to see her on the final leg from Chicago to New York, but what concerns me is that she was also on the train north and got off in Sleepyside. She was at the car rental counter when Bobby picked me up from the station this morning.”
“I saw her, too,” Bobby corroborated. “And I’ve never seen her before. It just seems like too big of a coincidence that someone would leave Spokane on his flight and be headed to Sleepyside. This town has grown a lot, but we’re still not that big.”
Honey laughed. “True, but by any chance was this woman rather overweight with eyes that look like they’ve seen too much?”
Knut started. “That’s exactly how I would describe it. Those eyes are what bothered me the most. I seriously had chills go down my spine when she looked at me.”
“It was a coincidence,” Honey assured the men. “I suspect you shared a flight with our one o’clock appointment, Wilhelmina James. When she called to set up the meeting, she mentioned that she was finishing up some work in Washington.”
“What do you know about her?” Knut asked. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to take her on as a client?”
Trixie nodded. “We’ve known her since we were fourteen, Knut. She’s a renowned psychic investigator and medium, and her work takes her all over the country. She was here last summer and did a huge favor for me. I’m hoping we’ll be able to return the favor.”
“A psychic investigator? A medium?” He raised both eyebrows. “Seriously?”
She nodded again. “Look, I know it sounds like I’ve lost my mind, but trust me, please?”
“Trixie?” Bobby spoke up quietly. “Please tell me this doesn’t have anything to do with Erica getting lost in the marsh last summer. Please?”
She closed her eyes and tried to shut how the memories of just how terrified she had been for Erica. “I can’t do that, Bobby. It was easier to just tell everyone that she wandered into the marsh, but the Bob-Whites can all verify that that wasn’t the whole story. We thought Erica had an imaginary friend, but it was actually Miss Martin’s sister Emily who was haunting the house. Managed to lure Erica into the marsh, hoping that she would drown and become a ghost herself. Honey contacted Wilhelmina, and she did a seance for us right after Miss Rachel died, and we all witnessed her coming back to take Emily to the other side.”
He pushed the rest of his lunch away and looked rather green. “I’m so sorry, Trixie. I wish… when you bought…” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you remember that I would go over to Miss Martin’s with Brom when I was little. There was a little girl that would come over every time I was there. She reminded me of Gaye, and she kept trying to convince me to show her the marsh. She was a girl, though, and always in long dresses, and well, you all had warned me how dangerous the marsh is. She would always get mad and storm away when I said no, and to be honest, I was always glad to see her go. Something didn’t seem right, and Reddy couldn’t stand her. I just assumed she lived nearby somewhere, though. I didn’t want either of us to get in trouble, so I never told anyone about her, well, until now.”
Honey shivered. “You know, Bobby, I’m convinced you had just as many close calls when you were six and seven as Trixie and I did during those years. But I suspect you can imagine how easy it would have been for her to convince another little girl to follow her.”
“Oh yeah,” he admitted. “She was definitely persuasive. It actually makes everything make more sense now, too. I never could figure why Erica just wandered off like that. It just didn’t seem like something she would do.”
“It wasn’t,” Trixie found her voice. “But you’re both safe and secure now, and I suspect you can understand why I have no trouble believing in ghosts. Emily wasn’t the first one I’ve seen, nor was she the last.”
Knut sighed. “I’ve never seen one, and I don’t think I want to. I do believe you, though. Like Hamlet said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Besides, after last fall….”
“Can you tell us just what happened?” Bobby asked. “Somehow I suspect the bear attack we heard about is about as truthful as Erica just wandering into the marsh.”
He snorted. “You’re not kidding. I’m assuming everything said here stays here? I’d rather not have the feds coming after me again.”
Bobby’s eyes widened, but all three nodded. “Of course.”
“It’s a long story, but to summarize, I met a scientist studying the sasquatch. Wound up investing most of my savings with him, and in an attempt to convince Cap to do the same, I took Cap out to the lab. When we got there, it was a scene straight out of a horror movie. What I thought was a sasquatch had escaped and killed Dr. Verres. He tracked us through the woods, and eventually attacked me. Would have killed me, too, if Cap hadn’t been there to save my life.”
“It wasn’t a sasquatch?” Trixie asked. “I didn’t think they were violent.”
“They’re not,” he told her. “At least, not usually. And believe it or not, it was a sasquatch, and it wasn’t. Ever heard of a chimera?”
“Yes, but I thought those were only in myth and legend,” Honey replied. “Then again, I thought ghosts were, too, until Trixie started seeing them.”
Trixie stuck her tongue out at her best friend. “At least now you’ve seen them for yourself, too.” She turned to her cousin. “A chimera is a creature made of two or more animals, isn’t it? Is that really possible now?”
“Dr. Verres figured out a way,” he confirmed. “Unfortunately, he was working for the government at the time and absconded with their information when they tried to shut him down. That’s why I’ve been battling charges in federal courts for months. His widow finally convinced them that she and I were totally in the dark as to what he was really doing, but yeah. This was his handiwork. Part sasquatch, but also part bear, part wolf, and even some gorilla. I’m not sure what was the scariest, though. The cobra DNA in his claws that inhibited blood clotting, or the fact that Dr. Verres even used some of his own DNA to create this monster.”
“You’re kidding,” Honey gasped.
He shook his head. “I wish. The monster found his way to the Verres’s house and was about to attack the widow when she managed to kill him. Ron told me that the DNA tests they did on the body proved it. At any rate, I’m finally cleared of all charges, and thankfully your father is willing to give me a chance in his company. I don’t even want to think about how much I owe Gloria in back alimony at this point, so I’m looking forward to getting it caught up and getting back on my feet again.”
“He’s a strong believer in second chances,” Honey told him gently.
Deep in conversation, the group lost track of time, and they were startled when the door opened at ten minutes before one. Wilhelmina James grinned as they hurried to dispose of the takeout containers.
“Sorry,” Trixie apologized. “My cousin dropped by for lunch, and we didn’t realize how late it is.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not that late, anyway,” Wilhemina assured her. “I’m actually early.” She sat down in the other visitor’s chair and put her large purse on the floor. “It works out better than I had hoped.” She turned to Knut. “I’m sorry if I frightened you on the plane. I have a message to give you, and I wasn’t quite sure how to approach you.”
“A message? For me?” He raised his eyebrows. “How? From whom?”
She shook her head. “The who isn’t important. Just know that someone who cares about you asked me to tell you to be patient. Grace will come to you.”
None of the Beldens were that religious, and Trixie was surprised when Knut’s already pale face grew even whiter. Bobby leaped forward from his desk and pressed a bottle of water in his hand.
Knut waved it off. “I’m okay. But please, tell me who told you that. My cousins told me you’re a medium. I promise to be open-minded, but I need to know.”
She hesitated, then said, “Hjalmar Knutson.”
“My great-grandfather,” he whispered. “My mother’s grandfather. He died when I was a baby,” he explained to the others. Tears came to his eyes. “Do you think he was right?”
“I’m just the messenger,” Wilhelmina reminded him, but she relented. “I will say that he was convinced of it.”
“Thank you,” he told her. He stood and shakily crossed the room to shake her hand. “You don’t know what this means to me.” He smiled at the others. “Thank you again for lunch. Bobby, would you mind if I take Aunt Helen’s car and go home now? I know you meant to drive me back there, but I know you need to get to work.”
“One of us can drive him home,” Trixie nodded. “Are you capable of driving right now, though?”
“I’m actually feeling better than I have in months. I’ll be fine.” With a few more words, he slipped out the door.
“He will be all right, won’t he?” Wilhelmina asked in concern. “It was a stroke of luck finding him here. I lost sight of him in Spokane, and didn’t realize he was headed for Sleepyside. I assumed I had lost my chance, and admittedly, the message didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“It did to him, though,” Honey said. “He actually looked happy when he left, and given what he’s been through the last few months, that’s a major thing. I think he will be okay. So. Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you to my brother-in-law, and our new intern, Bobby Belden.”
Bobby shook her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Wilhelmina James. I have no idea what they’ve told you, but I’ve known these two ladies for quite a while now, and your sister was instrumental in my work about ten years ago.” She sat back in her chair. “That’s actually why I’m here. As you know, my work takes me around the country, and as I’m getting busier, you can imagine it’s hard for me to get everywhere as soon as my clients would like. I’m working to build a network of contacts that I can call on for assistance when I need help.” She took a deep breath. “I’m hoping I can add your agency to my list.”
Trixie blinked. She wasn’t sure just what she had expected, but this wasn’t it. “I don’t understand. We’re not psychic investigators.”
Wilhelmina smiled. “You would be surprised how many people call me in thinking that they’re being haunted only to find out that someone is engineering the so-called ‘haunting.’ In other cases, there truly is a paranormal phenomenon present, but there’s also a purely human factor involved and making it worse. For example, someone is being malicious, and a phenomenon is trying to protect their home.”
“Lisgard House,” Honey said, sitting up straight. “The owner staged a haunting as an alibi for his attempt to burn the house down to collect the insurance money. However, the ghost of a former occupant really was there and did all she could to protect the old mansion.”
Trixie nodded in understanding. “Sarah Sligo. That was the first ghost I ever actually saw.”
“Exactly,” Wilhelmina confirmed. “However, as my area of expertise is the supernatural not the human aspect, I try to work with a local private detective firm in those cases. That’s where you come in. I would like to use your agency as my go-to contact in New York.”
“How often do you foresee calling upon us?” Honey asked.
“To be honest, I have no idea. I do have a case now that I would like your assistance with, but I generally have two or three calls from this area a year, and not all of them require help. Some are straightforward, like the seance I performed for you last summer. However, as my business grows, that could certainly increase. Of course, you would always be free to turn down a case if you’re unable to assist. I’m not asking for you to neglect your own clientele. This would be purely on an ‘as available’ basis.”
Trixie glanced at her partner, who nodded imperceptibly. She smiled. “With that stipulation, I think I speak for both of us in saying we’d be glad to be a contact for this area. I am curious, though. Why us? We’re just a fledgling agency.”
Wilhelmina laughed. “Legally, maybe, but remember I witnessed one of your early cases first hand. If you could take down Jon Burke as fourteen year olds, I can only imagine how capable you are as licensed adults.” Her expression changed slightly, then she said, “Also, I’m going to be honest. I’ve looked at the public records of some of your cases, and I remember our discussions last summer. I can’t speak for your brother yet, but I’m convinced that you, and to an extent, Honey, have an affinity for the supernatural. I wouldn’t quite say you attract manifestations, but it’s easier for you to see and recognize them than it is for most people.”
Trixie groaned, hearing a secret fear she had harbored for some time vocalized. Her mind went immediately to Erica. “Please tell me you don’t sense that in Erica, too.”
Wilhelmina reached out and patted Trixie’s hand. “Most children are more receptive to things they can’t explain. She’s still too young to say for sure, but it’s not a bad thing if she is. It’s not bad for you, either. It’s the same sensitivity that helps you realize something is wrong before anyone else notices it. That’s a huge asset in your line of work.”
She sighed. “I know, and I’m thankful for that aspect of it. It’s just that she’s only eight, and she’s already had two experiences with ghosts. It’s a wonder she even sleeps at night.”
“Two?” Bobby spoke up. “I know about Emily, but what was the other one?”
“Jim’s great-uncle last fall. It’s a long story that I’ll tell you later.”
“Was he trying to help her or harm her?” Wilhelmina asked.
“Help her. He kept her former teacher from blowing up her classroom.”
“In Erica’s mind, it probably balances out,” she explained. “Yes, she’s seen ghosts, but she knows they’re not all like Emily.”
“Thank goodness,” Trixie breathed. She picked up her pen and centered her legal pad on her desk. “So, tell us about this case you have for us. What do we need to know?”
“By any chance, have you ever heard of the Manning Motel just outside of Poughkeepsie?”
They all shook their heads no.
“I’m not surprised,” she admitted. “From the brief history my clients gave me, it was popular back in the fifties and sixties, but it closed in the early seventies. The owner turned the rooms into studio apartments after that. It closed for good about fifteen years ago and was abandoned. The owner died last year, and my clients bought the property from the estate. They planned to raze the building and rebuild, but things aren’t going quite as they had hoped.”
“Your clients?” Honey asked, just as Trixie spoke up.
“In what ways?”
Wilhelmina smiled. “Paul and Katrina Westholm. It’s primarily Paul’s project, but Katrina is the one who called me in when things started happening. When the building was abandoned, most of the furnishings were left. They’re going through to see what, if anything, can be salvaged before the demolition company comes in. So far, it’s been minor things, like unexplained voices and items being moved when their backs are turned. The typical signs of a haunting, but from what Katrina said, I suspect there’s more to it than that. I’ll be driving up this afternoon and meeting with them. I had hoped that at least one of you could come up in the morning after I’ve had a chance to form some initial impressions of my own.”
“Of course,” Honey said. She turned to her brother-in-law. “Bobby? I know you’re not scheduled until eleven tomorrow, but could you work all day instead? Mr. Ingram is supposed to drop off some information we need for his case in the morning, so someone needs to be here.”
“Sure.” Bobby looked both disappointed and relieved that he would be staying behind, and once Wilhelmina left, Trixie walked over to pat his shoulder.
“Thanks for agreeing to open the office in the morning.”
“No problem. Uh, you know this will be my first time doing that by myself, right?”
Honey grinned. “Yep. It’s no different than being here by yourself any other time, though. You have a key of your own now, so it’s not a big deal. You already know how to run the coffee maker. You also have our cell numbers if anything comes up that you can’t handle.”
“It really is a big help having you here,” Trixie told him. “And I promise that you won’t always be stuck in the office taking messages. However, with this being our first case with Wilhelmina, it’s important that Honey and I both go to check it out.”
“I know. And I’ll admit that part of me is relieved. I didn’t even realize that you two believed in ghosts until today, and finding out I’ve actually talked to one, well, it’s a lot to take in.”
“For me, too,” Honey sighed. “I mean, I want to help her, but I’m not so sure about making a habit of this. Is this really a direction we want to take the agency?”
“We can always turn her down,” Trixie reminded her. “However, I’m also looking at it as a good opportunity to get an occasional case that doesn’t involve a cheating spouse or something just as dull.”
Honey giggled. “What, you don’t think that ghosts can be adulterous?”
“I really hope not,” she sighed, but then she made a face. “Now I’ve got an image of a ghostly orgy in my brain. Thanks a lot, Honey.”
“I don’t even want to know what that would look like,” Honey replied, still giggling. “But that is a good point, and it’s not like we have to advertise that we’re working with her.”
“Unless it’s advantageous,” Bobby grinned. “I just wish she was a little bit cheerier.”
“Why?” Trixie asked.
“Because everyone always tells me to find a happy medium….”
“So with that settled for now,” Honey said once she stopped giggling, “you have another issue. If we’re meeting Wilhelmina in Poughkeepsie first thing in the morning, we’re going to have to leave Sleepyside early. Trixie, you still need to go shopping. You need a business casual outfit for tomorrow. Something that works both for meeting a client and for exploring an abandoned motel that may or may not be haunted. Why don’t you go pick up Erica and take her shopping with you? Then get some rest before tomorrow. Bobby and I will be okay here.”
“I suppose I should,” she said reluctantly. She sighed. “Tell me one thing, though. How was it that when Di was pregnant with the twins, she was cute no matter what she wore, but when I try on the same exact outfit, I just look like a giant grape?”
It was about seven when the reached the motel property the next morning. As Wilhelmina wasn’t due to meet them until eight, Trixie put her travel mug of decaffeinated coffee down in the cup holder in Honey’s Explorer, then slipped out of the SUV with her camera and tote bag. “I’d like to get some pictures just in case.”
Honey nodded, and grabbed her own camera as well as a notepad and pen before following her friend. “Let’s be careful. We don’t know just what we’re getting into here.”
While the Manning Motel had been a comfortable rest stop for weary travelers in its heyday, years of disuse had taken their toll. Graffiti covered the brick walls of the U-shaped building that encompassed three sides of the parking lot, with two sides running parallel to the road so that the parking lot was only visible from the driveway. It appeared as though most of the windows had also been broken since the complex had been vacated, and cracks snaked through the pavement of the parking lot. Weeds had pushed up through the cracks and were now growing in abandon within them.
Being careful to watch her step, Trixie wandered to the side of the building closest to where they had parked and peeked in through a hole in the grimy glass of the window next to a door marked 120. She pulled a flashlight from her bag and shined it on the dark room. She wasn’t surprised to see the layers of dust that covered everything in the room, however, she was surprised to see that it appeared the last tenant had left not only the furniture, but also personal effects and clothing.
She turned to see Honey standing at the apartment next door, quietly taking pictures through another broken window. “There’s something really strange about this,” she said softly as she joined her.
“I know. Did that room look anything like this one?” She stepped aside so that Trixie could see into the apartment labeled 119. “Look at that bed. I get leaving furniture, especially if it belonged to the owners instead of the tenants, but who would move out and leave the bed made with a teddy bear on top?”
Trixie shivered. “You did some research after I left the office yesterday. Did you find anything? Especially anything that mentioned tenants leaving suddenly?”
“I found one website with a few pictures from the sixties, but that was it. I want to go by the local library before we go home today. See if we can find anything in back issues of the newspaper or possibly some leads of people to interview. You would think that it would be major news if all the tenants of an apartment complex suddenly moved out at once.” A crow let out a mournful cry, shattering the quiet stillness. Honey cringed. “I don’t like this at all.”
“Me, either,” Trixie admitted. “I have too many questions, and we just got here.”
When Wilhelmina arrived, she was swiftly followed by a tall slender woman who appeared to be in her late fifties. She introduced herself as Katrina Westholm, then smiled warmly at the two detectives. “You two must be the detectives Ms. James told me about. I can’t thank you enough for coming. I’m sure you must have questions for me.”
“Yes, we do,” Trixie replied, returning the smile as she reached to shake the older woman’s hand. “I’m Trixie Molinson, and this is my business partner, Honey Wheeler-Belden.”
Honey also took the proffered hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“The old office is relatively clean,” Katrina told them. “I needed someplace secure that I could work from as we do the inventory. Let’s head in there and we can sit down as I tell you what’s been going on. I have an extra key for that that I’ll give you, and I’ll show you where I keep the individual room keys.”
“There’s no master key that unlocks all the rooms?” Honey asked as they crossed the parking lot.
Katrina shook her head. “I haven’t found it yet, if there is.”
There were two doors that led into the office, which was located at the corner that joined the two of the wings of the building closest to the road. The door that Katrina led them through opened into a large space separated from a small seating area by a waist high counter that ran the length of the room. Trixie realized that the other door must have been the one used most recently by the apartment tenants, while the area they were in had been the work space. Rusted filing cabinets and a table holding an old manual typewriter lined one wall, and a card table with four folding chairs was set up in the middle of the room. She wandered to the counter to see a faded floral sofa with several holes that she was sure were evidence of a mouse infestation at some point since the motel had been abandoned. A wooden coat rack stood empty in another corner, and Katrina pointed their attention to a closed door in the corner. She explained that it led to the apartment that had been used by the previous owners. “It’s semi-clean, but I try not to go in there unless I have to.”
Katrina suggested they take the seats around the card table, and Trixie breathed a sigh of relief as she sank into one of the metal chairs. She and Honey set their notepads on the table and prepared to take notes as their hostess drew a deep breath.
“Okay. So I don’t know how much Ms. James has told you,” Katrina began. She recapped the scant details Wilhelmina had given them the previous afternoon, but then said, “This isn’t the first property my husband has purchased for development, but for some reason, it’s the first that I’ve personally been attracted to. Maybe because I remember driving past here on trips I took with my parents when I was growing up. We had an RV, so we always spent the night at the trailer camp nearby, but a part of me always wondered what it would have been like to stay here. There was a pool back then, you see, but it was filled in long ago.”
Trixie nodded. “Honey and I stayed at the trailer camp on a trip upstate when we were teenagers. I admit I don’t remember the motel, though.”
“If I’m any judge of age, it would have been an abandoned building by then,” Katrina pointed out. “I’m amazed the trailer camp is still in business. But at any rate, when we finally took possession of the property, I came with Paul to do a walk through. It was in better condition than we’d thought, and I volunteered to see if anything could be salvaged.” She flushed, then added, “Even on that first trip, I thought there was something strange going on. I wanted to see if I could figure out what it was. That’s why I told Paul I wanted to see what we could salvage. I really don’t think there will be anything, but I needed an excuse to come back here without him making fun of me for jumping to conclusions.”
“Did you see or hear something?” Honey asked gently.
Katrina hesitated, then said, “Not really. Not then. Later I did, but that day it was more of a feeling that we weren’t alone. That there was someone or something here with us, even though we couldn’t find anyone. I mean, yes, there were plenty of rats around, but this was a different feeling.”
Trixie bit back a smile as Honey visibly repressed a shudder. Her friend had come a long way from the shy thirteen year old afraid of spiders and mice, but she knew that she still wouldn’t relish an up-close encounter with one.
Their hostess continued, “When you look at the apartments, you’ll notice that two of them look like their tenants just walked out and never came back. I want to find out what happened to those tenants. I want to know why. I want to know if their spirits are still here.”
“Why do you think they’re still here?” Wilhelmina asked.
She took a deep breath. “I heard voices in the attached apartment. I heard what sounded like someone arguing outside the window, but when I looked out, there was no one there. Then a voice spoke in my ear, saying, ‘help me.’ I’m trying, but I don’t know how. I don’t even know who I need to help. I’ve searched the book with tenant records, but I run across dead ends when I look for those names in the phone book or in the newspaper morgue.”
“I started searching those rooms I mentioned,” she added. “I thought I saw something in the mirror, but when I turned around, there was nothing there. I know that could be my imagination, but I’ve covered the mirrors in those two rooms. I want to see, but I don’t. It doesn’t help that every time I move anything in there, it’s put back where it was before as soon as I turn around.”
Trixie shivered despite the heat. “This may be unprofessional of me to say, and I’m sorry if it is, but I’m glad you’ve covered the mirrors. We may need to uncover them to see if there’s anything behind them, but I know what it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing something that shouldn’t be there.”
Katrina nodded. “Of course you’re welcome to uncover them, but I’m glad you understand.”
“Could we see the tenants’ records?” Honey asked. “We can do some digging and see if we can locate any of them. If not those in particular, maybe one of the others might remember something that would help.”
She took a worn ledger from the closest filing cabinet. “The names and apartment numbers are all in here. Thankfully, most of the numbers are still on the doors.”
Trixie gingerly took the fragile book. “We’ll be careful with it.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “I know we just met, but Ms. James has a stellar reputation, and she gave me a glowing review of you two yesterday. I’m not worried about it. I know you will.” She took two key rings from her purse and gave one to Wilhelmina and one to Trixie. “I had copies of these made yesterday. The larger key is the door for the office. The smaller one opens the filing cabinet. The rest of the records are in there, as well as a safe with the individual apartment keys. Its combination is 726. Ms. James has my cell number if you have any questions or if you run across anything, and obviously you have the run of the property.”
“We’ll do what we can,” Honey assured her.
“I know you will,” Katrina replied. After a few more words, she excused herself and slipped out the door.
“So, what do you think?” Trixie asked Wilhelmina.
Wilhelmina considered her words carefully. “I do believe there’s a spirit here, and the voices she heard probably were ethereal in nature. However, I’m not convinced that the spirit or spirits are moving items. It’s possible, of course, but I believe there’s someone else here, too.” She sighed. “Like I told you yesterday, I’m not good at detective work in the human realm. However, even I can spot fresh fingerprints on a dusty table.”
“Any chance they were Katrina’s?” Honey asked.
The older woman shook her head. “I compared them to prints that I knew were hers. These were slightly smaller, and the patterns were different.”
“So the first thing I want to do is search the premises,” Trixie said. “Determine if there’s someone here with us or to find out where they may be hiding. I’m assuming there’s no electricity?”
“No. She’s been using a battery-powered lantern when she needs it. It doesn’t put out that much light, so I suspect that’s how she didn’t notice the other fingerprints. Do you need me to help you? If not, I’d like to spend some time in the attached apartment.”
“We’ll be okay,” Honey assured her. “Would you mind if we do a quick check in there first, though? Just in case there’s a flesh and blood person in there, too.”
Wilhelmina looked startled, as if the possibility hadn’t occurred to her. “No. Please do. That way I can concentrate on what else may be there.”
Trixie attempted to ignore the wave of foreboding that washed over her at Wilhelmina’s words, and she gave Honey a look that she hoped was reassuring as she stood and gathered her belongings. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Despite the heat of the morning, and the sunlight streaming through the windows that someone had recently cleaned, the room they entered was cold and oppressive.
“Interesting,” Wilhelmina murmured.
Trixie watched in concern as Honey’s already pale face turned even whiter. She reached for her as she started to tremble, but Honey shook off her hands and gestured wildly to the doorway. “Out, Trixie. Now! Get out of here!”
“Why?” she asked, moving towards the doorway. She might not understand, but their partnership was based in trust, and she knew there was a reason for the unexpected reaction.
Once Trixie was safely back in the office, Honey’s color returned to normal, and she swiftly followed her friend. She reached out for Trixie’s arm and clung to her as Wilhelmina rejoined them.
“I’m sorry,” Honey whispered. “I can’t explain it. It was just an overwhelming feeling of danger, Trixie, directed towards you. Whatever it is is centered in there, though. The feeling went away when we got back in here.” She turned to Wilhelmina. “Please tell me you felt something, too.”
“No,” she said slowly. “Not right then. That doesn’t mean anything, though. You two have a very strong bond that goes back years. It makes sense that if there’s something targeting Trixie that you would have felt it.”
“Why me?” Trixie asked in confusion. “Why just me? Why not you two?”
“I don’t know,” Wilhelmina admitted. “But I’ll do my best to find out.”
While Honey reluctantly followed Wilhelmina back to the other apartment, Trixie carried one of the folding chairs outside, where she sat reading through the tenants’ record book. While the list of names would be useful when they started trying to track down the previous tenants, nothing jumped out at her as being immediately helpful in their search of the property.
It was only a few minutes before Honey returned with a sigh of relief. “Wow, I’m glad that’s over. As far as we can tell, Katrina’s been the only one in there in several years, so at least we know it’s not the intruder’s hideout.”
“Did it still feel as overwhelming without me?” Trixie asked.
Honey shook her head. “Still creepy, but no. Even though I probably imagined it, thank you for humoring me and not going back in there.”
Trixie gave a half-smile. “I trust your instincts, Hon, and I believe you really felt something. I’d love to know what it has against me in particular, but I promised Dell that I would try really hard not to take any unnecessary chances right now.” She chuckled. “Well, ever, really, but I’m actually really trying to be more careful until the baby’s born.”
Honey gently punched her arm. “You better be careful even after that, you know. I don’t want to have to look them in the eyes and tell them I let something happen to you.”
“That goes for you, too, you know,” Trixie reminded her. “So, should we get started?”
“Which way first? Look for an intruder or check the mysterious apartments?”
“Check the mysterious apartments for an intruder, of course,” she grinned. “I want to see what we can find there, then we can search the others.”
A quick search of apartment 119 proved that no one was currently hiding in there, and the women began to really look at their surroundings. It almost seemed too generous to call the living space an apartment, as what had once been a decently sized motel room made for a very small apartment. A full bed was pushed into the corner, fully made, and as they had noticed earlier, a moth-eaten teddy bear reclined on the pillows. A crib stood beside the bed, and a chest of drawers served as a table for a small television. A dining table held a hot plate and a few magazines dated March, 1986.
The tenants had turned the closet into a rudimentary pantry that was still filled with cans of Spaghetti-Os, blue boxes of macaroni and cheese, and a box of animal crackers. The boxes had been chewed by mice, and a small one scurried from a dark corner of the closet and ran across Trixie’s foot on its way to freedom outside. The smell of old clothes assaulted her senses and she wrinkled her nose as she noted clothing that would comprise a small wardrobe for both a man and a woman. The bottom drawer held clothes and diapers for a toddler, and her heart went out to the family that had resided in an apartment really intended for no more than one person.
“I can’t imagine raising a baby in here,” she muttered, wandering into the bathroom. The mirror over the sink was covered with a yellowed newspaper, just as Katrina had stated, and bottles of shampoo and conditioner still sat next to a pink plastic razor on the edge of the tub.
“I found a photo album,” Honey called out, interrupting her thoughts.
“Good. That should really help,” Trixie told her, going back into the main room. “Any chance the photographs are labeled?”
Honey very carefully peeled back the cellophane covering the page and gently lifted a snapshot of a young woman holding a baby. “Marie and Jessica. January, 1986.”
“That’s something at least,” she told her. “Let’s take this with us. I don’t like how things are moving around in here, and I don’t want to risk it disappearing.”
“Me, either,” Honey agreed. “This is just sad, though. I can’t imagine how an entire family just walked out and never came back.”
While Apartment 119 had obviously been home to a family, Apartment 120 had been home to a young, single female. Like the other apartment, the bed had been pushed into a corner and a television sat on top of the chest of drawers. However, they found a boom box on the table, with a box of cassette tapes beside it where Duran Duran competed for space with Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and the Police.
The bathroom sink was covered with makeup and hairspray, and Trixie frowned when she looked down into the trashcan and noticed a torn cardboard box that had once contained a home pregnancy test. She pointed it out to Honey.
“Interesting. There’s no way a test would still show an accurate result after all these years, is there?”
Trixie shook her head. “Even new ones warn you they can’t be relied on after ten minutes. No way would I trust one after this many years.”
“Still, at least we know it was a possibility,” Honey pointed out. “It’s something to keep in mind. I don’t think we’re going to find anything else in here, though. All that’s in the drawers and closet is clothing. There’s not even a photograph anywhere.”
“Which is kind of strange,” Trixie said, walking out of the dark room into the bright sunlight. “Even if she didn’t have any of herself, you’d think there would be one of a boyfriend or something. Let’s make a note of it, anyway.”
The rest of the apartments on that side of the building were as they had expected: vacant, except for a few pieces of furniture that showed the ravages of time and disuse. It didn’t take them long to check the bathrooms, closets, and dresser drawers in each one.
They continued around the building, skipping the office and its attached apartment. It wasn’t until they reached the corner apartment on the side of the building farthest from the road that Trixie stopped short. While the bathroom and closet doors were on the left side of the room, there was an exterior door that led to the back of the property. She gingerly pulled back the rotted cotton that had once been a pretty curtain and looked out, surprised to see a small building set off near the edge of the lot. From a distance, it appeared to be in a similar shape as the rest of the motel.
“I’ll be right back,” Honey said, leaving the apartment. Trixie could soon hear her moving about in the apartment next door, but before she could really start to wonder what she was doing, she was back and taking the ledger from Trixie’s bag.
“Interesting. There’s no door over there,” she explained, leafing through the ledger. “A ha! This was the caretaker’s apartment. I wonder if that may be a tool shed of some kind.”
“Maybe,” Trixie replied. “Let’s go check it out.”
The door opened easily, and Honey, the first one through, gasped and pointed at a path worn through the grass and weeds that led directly from the doorstep to the small shed. “I think our intruder has discovered the shed, too.”
“Someone certainly has,” she replied. Her heart pounded as she looked at the dilapidated building, then quickly followed Honey down the path.
The pair crept as silently as possible up to the window and peered inside. Upon seeing the still figure huddled in the corner, Trixie stepped back and closed her eyes. “I really hope they’re breathing.”
“I really hope they’re not a ghost,” Honey muttered. She took a deep breath, then wrenched open the door. The figure sat up with a start as they burst inside.
Trixie followed, breathing a sigh of relief that the young woman they had discovered seemed healthy, if rather shaken by their abrupt entrance.
“Who – who are you? You’re not cops, are you?”
“No. We’re private investigators the new owner called in, but we’re not cops,” Honey explained, then after introducing them, she sat down on the floor beside her. “We’re looking into some unexpected things that have been happening here, and I think you may be able to help us.”
“Maybe,” the girl, who Trixie realized must have been no older than her late teens, said. “Maybe you can help me, too.”
“We’ll certainly try,” Trixie told her gently. “Can you tell us your name and why you’re here?”
The girl smiled sadly and sat up so that the detectives could see her slightly protruding abdomen. “It’s a long story, and I don’t know where to start.”
Trixie’s heart went out to the young girl, as she could only imagine the circumstances that had brought her there. She unconsciously rubbed her own growing stomach. “Why don’t we go sit in the office? I know it’s not great, but we’d be a little more comfortable.”
A look of sheer panic crossed the girl’s face. “Please, no! I can’t go back in there!”
“I could go get those folding chairs,” Honey offered. “That way we’d be able to sit down.”
The girl nodded gratefully. “Please. I just, well, I know I’m trespassing anyway, but there’s something dangerous in there. There were voices yelling at me to get out, and well, I haven’t dared go near it again.”
Trixie’s eyes met Honey’s and she realized they had both reached the same conclusion. “Let Wilhelmina know we know why me, even if we don’t know why.”
Honey nodded. “This all has to be connected somehow. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
“Is someone else here with you?” the girl asked after Honey left. “Another private investigator?”
“In a way,” Trixie told her. “Wilhelmina is a psychic investigator.” She grinned conspiratorially. “While Honey and I were brought in to find you, she’s here to figure out what’s going on in the office.”
“To find me?”
“Well, to find whoever was responsible for moving things around. Wilhelmina knew there had to be a real person here somewhere and asked us to find out who and why.” She wanted to reassure her. “Don’t worry. You haven’t done anything malicious, and the owner is just interested in finding out what’s going on. We’re not going to call the police about the trespassing.” She took another long look at her, and asked softly, “How old are you? Is your family trying to find you?”
“I turned eighteen a few months ago,” she replied. “And no. My boyfriend left me when I told him I’m pregnant, and then my grandparents, who raised me, kicked me out when they found out. My dad died a couple of years ago, and I’m hoping to find my mom.”
“I hate to ask, but can you prove you’re eighteen? Just in case?”
She nodded and reached for a backpack in the corner, then pulled out a driver’s license which she handed to Trixie. It showed her name as Jessica Leigh Ward, with a birth date of January 13, 1985.
Trixie didn’t bother doing the math; she knew that the birth date was just a few months before Bobby’s. She made a mental note of the Schenectady address, then handed the license back to her with a sigh of relief. Had Jessica been under eighteen, she would have been duty bound to report her whereabouts to the authorities, but as it was, she could quietly confirm her story without turning her in. “Thank you. I just needed to be sure. We can save the rest of your story for when Honey gets back, but when was the last time you ate?”
“This morning,” she assured her. “I stopped at a supermarket in town before hiking out here. My apples and oranges are gone, but I have plenty of granola bars left.”
Trixie’s stomach churned at the thought of living on granola bars, especially while pregnant. “What about water?”
“There’s a creek back in the woods,” Jessica told her. “It’s not the greatest, but at least it’s clean.”
She winced and reached into her own bag to take out her unopened bottle of water, which she handed to the girl. “I know it’s not cold, but at least it’s been purified.” She knew there was no way she and Honey would be leaving that day before they had made more suitable arrangements for Jessica, even if it meant taking her home with one of them.
Honey soon appeared with Wilhelmina and enough folding chairs for all of them to sit down. Trixie gratefully sank onto one of them, realizing for the first time just how badly her feet were hurting.
Introductions were made, and with a little encouragement, Jessica repeated the background information she had given Trixie. She then took a deep breath, and said, “So to get back to the very beginning, my parents lived here when I was born. I don’t remember it, because my mom disappeared when I was about a year old. My dad took me to his parents who raised me, but when I asked about my mother, I was told that she didn’t want to be a wife and mother, and so she left us.”
Trixie’s mind went back to the album they had found and she realized that Jessica must have been the baby in the photograph.
Honey sucked in her breath. “Surely there was more to it than that.”
Jessica nodded. “When I was thirteen, my dad finally told me she had run off with a man she met somewhere. The problem is that I’ve never really believed any of it. Dad told me himself that she didn’t leave a note and she never told him herself. He actually heard from the landlord that he had seen her leaving with another man. That’s why I came here when my grandparents kicked me out. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, but I figured that maybe I could find a clue to where she went. Find out if she went willingly. I know I’m only four months pregnant, but I can’t imagine just up and leaving my baby like that.”
“You know there’s a chance you won’t like what you find?” Wilhelmina asked.
“At least then I would know. I’d rather know for sure than have doubts,” she explained.
Wilhelmina nodded. “I can understand that. I’m assuming you’re the one who has been moving things. Why and how?”
Jessica gave a bitter laugh. “On my way here, I heard that the building is about to be torn down. I was hoping that I could either scare the new owner away or at least buy myself some time to search for clues. Plus, the only apartments I’ve been moving things in were the one we had and the one next to it. Apparently they were left like that for some reason, so I figured they should stay that way as long as they could.
“As for how, that was easy. I found the master key on my one trip into the office, so it was easy to get in the rooms. I’d just hide out in here while anyone was here, and then go replace everything once they left. The woman that comes never comes out here, and well, I’d have run to hide in the woods today if I’d heard you coming. Instead, I fell asleep.”
“I’m glad you did,” Trixie told her. “We want to get to the bottom of all of this, and I have a hunch that your mom’s disappearance is somehow tied into the spirit in the apartment off of the office. What was your mother’s name?”
“Marie Ward. I think her maiden name was Brown, but I’m not completely sure. Gram told me that her parents were already dead before I was born.”
“So tell me exactly what happened when you went in the office,” Wilhelmina requested.
“The office was actually unlocked when I got here,” she explained. “So I went in and found that key and looked at the record book. Found out which apartment was ours. Then I wandered through the open door into the next apartment. As soon as I did, there was a voice screaming, ‘Get out! Get out!’ I turned and ran and haven’t been anywhere near that part of the building since.”
“Did it sound like a man or a woman?”
Jessica thought for a moment, but shook her head. “I don’t remember. I think it might have been a woman, but I’m not sure.”
“So whatever is in there doesn’t like pregnant women,” Honey commented, glancing at Trixie and Jessica.
“No,” Wilhelmina shook her head. “It’s not quite that. I’m still working to establish contact with the entity, but it feels more like a spirit of fear than dislike or hatred. It’s actually a good starting point. Now I just need to figure out why.”
“That all resolved rather neatly,” Honey commented to Trixie as they sat in Honey’s Explorer outside of a Sonic Drive-In a short while later. After meeting Jessica and hearing her story, Katrina had been even more determined to find out what had happened to the missing tenants and had offered Jessica the use of the mother-in-law suite over her garage. She would also make sure that the young girl had what she needed until either her mother was found or they came up with a more permanent solution for her.
“Almost too neatly,” she agreed. “But I’m glad for Jessica’s sake that she has a place to go. I’m not sure either Dell or Brian would have been too thrilled if we’d brought her home with us.”
“I’m sure they would have understood,” Honey assured her. “My thought was to take her to Jim and Joeanne, though. I know she’s outside their scope since she graduated, but still, they would be able to find the resources to help her. I think she’s going to be happier this way, though. She’ll be independent, but still get to be close by while we’re looking for her mother.”
“I have a really bad feeling about that,” Trixie admitted. “I’m not convinced that the spirit in the office is Marie Ward, but I haven’t ruled it out. I’m anxious to start trying to track down some of the tenants and the caretaker though. I want to see what they remember.”
“One other thought. The Westholms bought the motel from the estate of the previous owner. Are there any other family members that might be a good resource? Surely Katrina has contact information for the executor of the estate. We could start there.”
While the records available at the Poughkeepsie library were of some help, both Trixie and Honey were grateful for the nationwide records available on the internet as they worked to track down the tenants. Two days later, they found themselves at an assisted living facility in Newburgh, talking with Ruby Glaser. Ruby was the former resident of apartment 116, and as she told the detectives, she had been living at the facility for the last two years.
“Getting the eviction notice when the Manning Complex closed was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she told them matter-of-factly. “It sounds funny, but I moved in there when my husband died, and I didn’t want to live with my daughter. Didn’t like her husband, you see. I had to call her when the complex closed. I couldn’t afford rent anywhere else, and she was a dutiful daughter and took me in. I got to get to know my grandkids, and I wouldn’t have otherwise. I finally got to a point where I need the help I get here, but they come and visit me at least once a week.”
“I’m glad you were able to reconcile,” Honey said.
“Me, too, but I know that’s not why you’re here. I’m curious, though. Why did you call me? That was all a long time ago.”
“We’re actually trying to find two tenants in particular, and we wondered if you might be able to help us. Marie Ward lived in apartment 119 and Laurie Morris lived in 120. Marie’s daughter is trying to get in touch with her.”
“Wow,” Ruby said after a long moment of silence. “I thought everyone had forgotten about those two. Marie lived with her husband, at least, I assume he was her husband, and her baby. Jennifer or Jessica or something like that. Laurie lived by herself, but they were about the same age. Both about twenty, I’d say. They became pretty close, living next to each other and all.”
“We’ve been told that they just up and left one day. Did you ever hear where they may have gone?”
She shook her head. “No. Oh, there were all sorts of rumors, and it didn’t help that some of them said that Laurie had her sights set on Michael McKenzie. He lived there and ran the place for his dad, you know. Fresh out of college, and well, he didn’t quite know how to fit in there.”
“What do you mean?” Trixie asked.
“Well, he was fresh out of college and wanted to make a name for himself. Very by the book. His old man never cared if we were a day or two late with the rent, or if we were running a little short. Richard understood. He realized that none of us were really there by choice. I mean, these were all what they called efficiency apartments. Basically a bedroom and a bathroom, no kitchen at all. You had to either eat out all the time or make do with a hotplate. Maybe a toaster oven if you were lucky.”
“Could you have had a microwave?” Honey asked. “That would have been better than nothing, wouldn’t it?”
Ruby laughed and reached out to pat her hand. “For land’s sake, child, I suppose we could have, but who could afford one? They were expensive back then, and well, if you could afford a microwave, you could afford a better place to live. You’re young enough not to remember that, though. Mike actually should have known better. If we were a day late with the rent, he tacked on an extra fee, and if it happened again, you got evicted. No sympathy at all, and there he was driving around in an expensive sports car. Most of us either had old cars that barely ran or we took the bus. There was a bus stop right near the driveway back then.”
“So Laurie was involved with him anyway?” Trixie asked.
“She wanted to be,” Ruby told her. “It would have never lasted. Sure, he’d flirt with her, but he was the kind who wouldn’t marry someone like us.”
“Was there a lot of gossip?”
“Oh yeah. Not all of it kind. The worst said that she was sleeping with him to pay her rent, but I never believed it. If she was involved with him that way, it was because she’d convinced herself he loved her.”
“So what happened when she disappeared? Did Marie go at the same time?”
Ruby nodded. “Yeah. Now, I could see Laurie realizing Mike was using her or just not interested and taking off to start over elsewhere. I was shocked to find out that Marie left her husband and baby, though. I really couldn’t see her leaving her husband, but things aren’t always what they seem, you know? Maybe they had disagreements they managed to keep private, but it never made sense to me that she would just go off and leave that baby. You can fake a happy marriage, but you couldn’t fake her devotion to that child.”
“Did you ever hear where they went?”
“Not really,” she replied. “Mike said that Laurie told him she met someone, and when he saw them both driving off in a car with two men, he figured Marie had, too.”
“Did anyone else see them, or were there any rumors?” Trixie asked.
“No one I talked to or overheard had seen them, which meant that of course there were rumors. Everything from they were running from the law to they had been kidnapped.” She sighed. “Mike tried to put a stop to it, I’ll give him that. It got to the point he threatened to evict anyone he heard talking about them. I don’t know that he would have actually done it, but he got worse in other ways. It was bad enough that old Joe finally got fed up enough to leave. He had been friends with Richard, and had been the first tenant when the motel was turned into apartments. It hurt him seeing the building go down like it did.”
“Do you know where he is now, or if he might be willing to talk to us?”
She shook her head. “He died about five years ago.”
“What about the caretaker? We haven’t been able to find him either.”
“No idea where he went, but Mike had fired him long before the girls left. Said he could handle the maintenance himself. The only problem was that he never did. It took me six months to convince him that my apartment needed to be repainted. The one thing he did keep up for a while was the swimming pool, but we all knew that was because he liked watching the women in their bathing suits. It was in the parking lot right outside the office window, you know. It was how Laurie first got his attention.”
“The pool?” Trixie asked. “We were under the impression it had been filled in before the motel was turned into apartments.”
“Goodness, no,” Ruby replied. “I remember Richard saying ‘It’s already there, and it doesn’t cost that much to keep it going.’ We all tried to take care of it, too, because it was the one really nice thing the complex had.”
“When was it filled in?”
“Not long after Laurie and Marie left. They left in March, you know, and it was covered for the winter then. It was long gone before summer arrived. Upset a lot of tenants, but what could we do? We just woke up one morning to find workmen taking it out. Made a mess of the parking lot for a long time, too. I never knew why didn’t just leave it covered if he didn’t want to take care of it anymore. That would have been a lot cheaper than tearing it out and filling it in.”
“It may have been a liability issue,” Trixie told her. She had a hunch that was rapidly growing stronger, and it was all she could do to wait until they finished the interview and were back in the car before mentioning it to Honey.
However, her partner already had her cell phone out and ready to dial before she even had the door closed. “We need to talk to Wilhelmina. We’re only about half an hour from the motel, so I thought we could go talk to her in person. Is that okay, or do you need to get back to Sleepyside?”
“No, I’m good. I’ll just need to call Dell to let him know if we’re going to be too late, but Erica is spending the night with a friend tonight. I admit I want to go back there, anyway. I think I have a theory that I think we should check out.”
“Me, too,” Honey agreed. “So let’s hear it.”
“I know I’m jumping to conclusions, but given that the spirit or presence is afraid for pregnant women, I’m guessing that it’s Laurie, and that she really was pregnant.”
Honey nodded. “And involved with Mike, the owner’s son, who wasn’t quite as happy as she was when he found out.”
“She told him, thinking that he would marry her, but instead he killed her.”
“It looks that way. Probably Marie, too. Was it an accident or in the heat of the moment, or did he let it simmer for a few days?”
“Given that her trash still hadn’t been emptied, I suspect it was either an accident or spur of the moment. He probably saw his entire life flashing before his eyes when he envisioned a paternity suit.”
“I think Wilhelmina and I should discuss this in the office apartment. She still hasn’t been able to actually get a response from the spirit, and if we’re on the right track, this may help us get a more concrete reaction. I’m sorry, Trix, but I think it’s the best way.”
Trixie nodded. “I know. I agree. Even if it’s just reacting to a fear of what happened fifteen years ago and I would be safe, I think my presence would be more of a distraction. I can wait in the office.”
“Thanks,” Honey told her gratefully. “I know we have no proof, but if we can get a response, I suspect Katrina would be willing to have someone dig up the pool area. If they’re there, the police will have to open an investigation.”
After a quick call to Wilhelmina to let her know they were coming, it wasn’t long before they arrived at the Manning’s parking lot. To their surprise, a late model Lincoln was parked next to Wilhelmina’s rental car. The driver was just getting out when they pulled in and stopped to stare at them as Honey parked her SUV.
“May we help you?” Trixie asked as she slid out of the passenger seat.
The man, whom she guessed to be about forty, looked at them appraisingly, then said, “I’m looking for either Paul or Katrina Westholm. Would either of you happen to be Katrina?”
She shook her head. “No, however, I can get a message to them if you would care to leave one with me.”
“Could you give me their phone number, please? It’s imperative that I talk to them as soon as possible.”
“I’m sorry, but the best I can do is take your name and number and have them call you.”
“I see.” He took a business card from his wallet and handed it to her. “My name is Michael McKenzie. I’ve been out of the country, and I just learned that the Westholms purchased this motel from my dad’s estate. The executor of the estate had no right to sell it without contacting me first, but I realize that legally it was a valid sale. However, I’m hoping that they would be willing to sell it back to me. I have a sentimental attachment to this property, and I’m prepared to make it worth their while.”
Trixie carefully put the card in her purse. “While I’m not sure what their response will be, I will make sure that one of them gets in touch with you as soon as I can.”
“Thank you. May I ask, are you related to them?”
She glanced at Honey, then said, “No, however, we are friends of the family and just stopped by to check on the property for them. If you will excuse us….”
“But who is inside the building?” he asked.
“A contractor doing some work for the Westholms,” Honey interjected smoothly. “I promise that either Paul or Katrina will contact you as soon as possible. I’m sorry, but we’re on a rather tight schedule today.”
“What are they doing? May I see? It may impact how much I’m willing to pay for the property.”
Without waiting for a response, he strode towards the office door.
Honey raced ahead of him. “No. I’m sorry, but not without permission from the Westholms.” She stood in front of the door. “Now, we’ve already told you that we will get a message to them. As this is now their property, I’m going to ask you to leave.”
“And if I don’t?” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve admitted that you’re not the owner of this property. You have no proof that you have any more right to be here than I do.”
Honey took her cell phone from her pocket. “If you don’t, I will call the police and let them sort it out.”
“Now, there’s no need for that,” he told her, taking a step back. “You’ll have to forgive me. It was just very upsetting to learn that this place was sold to someone else. I spent quite a few years here when I was younger.”
“I can imagine,” Honey replied. “My father owns property, too, that I would like to see stay in the family. However, I do think you should go now.”
With a final request for them to pass along his information, he left. Once his car had left the parking lot, Trixie sighed and followed Honey into the office. “I hope we just did the right thing by letting him go.”
“Who was that?” Wilhelmina asked, joining them in the office. “As soon as his car pulled up, the presence in there seemed to get stronger. The feeling of fear intensified, and the room got about ten degrees colder when I heard someone start sobbing.”
“That was Michael McKenzie,” Trixie sighed. “His father was the former owner. He wants to buy it back from the Westholms.”
A cold wind blew through the office, and she shivered before continuing. “We just spoke to a former tenant, Ruby Glaser. She told us that Laurie was involved with him before she left.”
“I didn’t leave,” a voice cried.
“Laurie Morris? Is that you?” Wilhelmina asked. “Are you here?”
“I can’t leave,” came the desperate wail.
“Laurie, is Trixie safe here?” Honey asked.
There was silence for a long moment, then Wilhelmina repeated, “Is Trixie safe here? Can you knock once for yes, and twice for no?”
A single rap sounded on the door frame.
“Thank you. We want to help you, Laurie. In order to do that, we need to ask you some questions. If you can’t talk to us, just knock once for yes, and twice for no.”
The spirit they now knew was Laurie rapped once again.
“Laurie, did you die a natural death?”
“Was it an accident?”
After looking to Wilhelmina for permission and getting the go-ahead, Trixie jumped in. “Laurie, we talked to one of your neighbors today. She told us you were involved with Michael. Is that true?”
She hesitated, sighing as no further knock sounded. “Were you pregnant?”
“Did Michael kill you when you told him about the baby?”
“What about your friend Marie? Was she with you that day?”
A primal wail came from Laurie’s spirit, and another gust of wind blew through the room. Trixie, who was already on edge as she realized she was essentially interviewing a ghost, jumped as the outside door creaked open. Her hand automatically reached for the phone in her pocket, but she was too late.
“Put your phones on the table, then your hands in the air. All of you. Now.” Michael McKenzie barked orders as he trained a gun on the three of them. “No. Marie wasn’t with Laurie that day. She came looking for her about an hour after Laurie died. Unfortunately, she realized the truth, just like you.”
“Why kill them?” Honey asked softly as she raised her hands. “Even if you didn’t want to marry her, there were other ways to handle it.”
“She threatened to go to my dad,” Michael told her. “He was old fashioned enough that he would have made me marry her, and I didn’t want my whole life ruined by a slut stupid enough to think she could trap me by getting herself pregnant.”
A loud screech echoed through both the office and the apartment, and Michael whirled around. He walked to the doorway that led to the apartment, his entire body shaking with rage. “If I could kill you again, I would! You wouldn’t leave, and I had to close the whole complex because of you!”
The screech turned into sobbing. “I want to leave! I want to rest!”
Honey seized the opportunity Laurie’s screech had provided and quickly but silently grabbed the old typewriter. Although heavier than it looked, the weight proved to be an advantage as the slender detective hefted it and slammed it into the back of Michael’s head.
Trixie watched in awe as he slumped to the floor unconscious and Honey used a handkerchief from her pocket to grab the gun that had fallen beside him. She took a deep breath, then opened her phone so that she could dial 911. She took one look at the flip phone’s dark screen and sighed. “Honey? I’m really grateful you just saved all of our lives, but would you mind calling 911? My phone is dead….”
Honey looked at the remains of the typewriter that shattered into pieces when it hit the floor and the man lying unconscious amidst the wreckage, then looked at her long-time friend who had once again forgotten to charge her cell phone and burst into nervous laughter as she pushed her phone over to Trixie.
By the time the police and ambulance arrived, Michael was beginning to stir. When he awoke to find himself in police custody, he called for his attorney, then made a complete confession to strangling both young women and burying their bodies when the swimming pool had been filled in.
As the days passed, law enforcement dug up the pool area and found the skeletal remains. Katrina and Paul promised to give them a proper burial as soon as the authorities would permit, and with her killer in jail, Laurie was finally able to rest.
Murder at the Manning Motel, the headline screamed. Smaller type stated: Victims in 1986 double homicide buried on motel property.
As Alice Ward read the article for the third time, tears came to her eyes. She had spent years blaming her daughter-in-law for abandoning her husband and child, never once suspecting that all wasn’t as it seemed. She turned to her husband and reached for his hand. “I wonder if Jessica knows.”
“I hope so.” He sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Allie. I never dreamed she would stay away this long. I get mad, but then I get over it, and she knows it.”
“I know, hon.” Her heart ached for her husband. He hadn’t stopped blaming himself since the day Jessica had left, taking little more than the clothes on her back. Her heart ached for her only grandchild, alone and pregnant, her whereabouts unknown.
“I have an idea,” Carl said hesitantly. “I don’t know how much it would cost, but I’m thinking about calling those detectives mentioned in the article. I know they’re downstate, but since they’re already familiar with her mother, they might be willing to help us find Jessica and bring her home.”
“Please?” Alice seized at the idea as if it were a lifeline. “It would be worth any price to have her home again. She’s all we have left.”
Before he could lose his courage, he placed a quick call to information for the number, paying the extra charge to be automatically connected. Nodding at Alice, he pushed the button for speaker phone.
“Sleepyside Detective Agency. This is Bobby Belden. May I help you?”
The voice was much younger than she had expected, and she gave her husband a puzzled look.
He smiled reassuringly at her, then said, “I hope so. My wife and I read an article in the Schenectady Times about the situation at the old Manning Motel. Could I speak to one of the detectives who was involved in that, please?”
“Just a moment.”
After a few seconds, a feminine voice came on the line. “Trixie Molinson speaking. How may I help you?”
“My name is Carl Ward, and I understand you were involved in solving the murders at the Manning Motel,” he began. She reached out and put her hand on his arm. “My wife and I have a problem that’s somewhat connected, and well, I don’t know how much you charge, but we’re looking for our granddaughter. I got upset with her and I said some things I didn’t mean, and we haven’t seen her since. We just saw the article in the paper about the case, and we were hoping that you might help us. Jessica’s mother was one of the victims there.”
“Jessica?” There was a note of surprise in the detective’s voice.
“Yes. Jessica Leigh Ward. She’s eighteen, so we can’t make her come home, even though we really want her to. We just really need to know that she’s okay.”
“We may be able to help you,” Trixie told him. “Is there a number where you can be reached?”
He gave their phone number, and was surprised when she soon terminated the call without asking for more details or mentioning a fee. He sighed as he hung up the phone. “At least we’ll know we tried.”
The phone rang less than five minutes later, and Carl reached for it with a hopeful look on his face. Alice knew he was hoping the detective was calling back to ask for more information or to set up a meeting. Her heart leaped as his eyes widened, and he pushed frantically at the speaker phone button.
“Grampa?” A very familiar voice came through the line. “It’s me. Jessica.”
Alice could hear tears in her granddaughter’s voice as she wiped way her own.
“We’re both right here, Jessie. I’m so sorry, honey. We even called a detective looking for you.”
“I know,” she sniffed. “Trixie just called to let me know and that I should to call you. They’re amazing, Grampa. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
“How about home?” Carl asked gruffly. “Gram and I want you to come back home, honey. We’ll find a way to make it work for you and the baby.”
“Do you really want me back?” she asked hopefully.
Alice’s heart wrenched at the pain in her granddaughter’s voice. “Yes. We love you, Jessie, and that hasn’t changed. Where are you?”
“Poughkeepsie. I… I had no place to go, so I went looking for my mother. I was hiding out at the apartment complex where I was born, when Trixie and Honey found me. The new owners have been letting me stay with them, but I… I want to come home.”
“Give me the address,” Carl said. “We’ll be there in two hours.”
Her face lit up as she heard Jessica giving them directions. It wasn’t going to be easy with a new baby to raise, and she knew her granddaughter would have a hard life ahead of her, but for now, none of that mattered. Jessica was on her way home.