DOES THAT GO WITH SHERRY?
Although he was a millionaire a couple of times over from the many apps he’d developed, Millar Milner, or just plain “Mill” as he liked to be called, was still the same ornery character he’d always been. Success and money hadn’t changed him. He was around my age, maybe a little younger, say thirty-three, looked like a grunge teen from 1994 with long hair, plaid shirts, jeans, and work boots. Funny, tough, terrible with the ladies, and quirky, he had the manners of a goat, if goats had manners, and was brilliant with electronics and coding. Somehow, along with sitting at home and playing videos games and watching Nick at Nite, he’d weaseled his way into my detective business as a consultant and became my ubiquitous tech guru. And my good friend.
Sitting in The Tavern, the perpetually dark English-style pub we frequented, Mill took a large bite of his turkey burger and made a sour face. “This is some inedible meat.”
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“This, my friend, was found at the bottom of a rubber boot, some unidentifiable spices thrown at it.” He wiped the ketchup off his bottom lip and turned to the bartender. “Barkeep.”
Rudy, a small, round-headed man with a large black mustache below his bulbous nose, approached Mill. “What is it?”
“What. Is. It?” He turned to me and smirked. “See what I put up with? No respect, complete disinterest, a total lack of customer service.” He turned back to Rudy, a prosecutor staring down a criminal. “You tell me what it is, Rudy. I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
Rudy leaned back on his heels and smiled. He’d seen this act before, Mill making half-jokes, never quite serious enough to take seriously. “Hey, I’m just the bartender.”
Mill winked at me. “Like a sleeping cat on a windowsill.” Rudy now wore a cross between a frown and a grin, his eyes half closed. “Be that as it may,” Mill continued, “I find your lack of enthusiasm un-infectious. Didn’t you attend bartender training classes? Have you no sense of customer service?”
“Gee, Mill, I must have missed that day. I was probably out kicking old ladies. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Sarcasm,” Mill said, “is the downfall of civilization.”
I couldn’t hide my smile as I read aloud from the menu. “Fresh greens, chicken…”
“My doctor told me to cut fat out of my diet. There, I said it. I’m getting old. I have fatty veins. Hence the turkey burger.”
“So, that’s a no to the all-natural beef burger, then?”
“Wait. What? You mean this is not all-natural? Is this the un-natural?”
Rudy squinted an eye, then walked back to the other end of the bar.
“Look at me, reduced to eating cardboard with Thousand Island dressing,” sighed Mill.
Rudy gave Mill a satisfied smile. “If you don’t like the changes, Mill, maybe you should speak to the manager? I’m sure he’d love to hear your opinion.”
We both shot a glance at Allen, the persnickety, macrobiotic-eating, former bartender, who was recently promoted to bar manager, as he sat in his cave-like spot in the back of the dark dining room.
“The menu apocalypse is his doing,” Mill sneered.
Allen, until recently, had been overweight. He’d tortured himself through diet and exercise into losing at least thirty-five pounds, transforming himself from a sweaty beast into a cranky turd. It was a difficult transition and we all paid the price, what with his bad temper and general lack of good nature. The more he became preoccupied with his physical self, the more he’d developed a keen sense of superiority. Obsessed with his diet and newfound lifestyle, he followed it religiously, to the point of being disgusted with ordinary pub food. Predictably, his crusade filtered over to the pub’s cuisine, and in a fit of deranged healthy thinking, he’d changed the menus.
“See what happens when you don’t eat a proper diet?” Mill shook his head. “Maniacal stares. Inordinate amounts of sweat. Tooth grinding. Cantankerousness.”
“Hangry,” I said. “I’m ordering the salad with grilled chicken.”
“You’ll turn into a gasbag. Plant fiber, my psychic friend, is overrated.”
“It’s what I feel like having, Mill.”
He took a long slug of beer. “That’s what you’re dreaming about too, I’m guessing, green salads, because lately, you’re not forthcoming with any big cases.”
He was right. Dreams could lead to cases. But it was unpredictable. I never knew what I was going to see in my dreams, or where they’d lead me. Lately, I’d been dreaming of geometric patterns: straight, dark lines connected to rectangles against a white background. As unusual as these dreams were, I could tell there was something ominous behind them, but why press my luck? Any dream where I wasn’t seeing murder was a welcome relief.
“I’m not dreaming anything of consequence, lately,” I said.
“No? The infamous dream detective has no death dreams?”
“Nothing that makes sense.”
“No blood and guts, dying women, cars careening off bridges, short men dangling from long ropes?”
“It’s strange, Mill. I’ve been seeing geometric shapes in my dreams. A straight line running into a rectangle.”
“You’re seeing what, now?”
“Just flat geometric shapes, like you’d draw on a scrap of paper.”
Mill wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “I was never good at geometry.”
I nodded. “Well, it’s certainly a change. Almost as if my mind has decided to do a temporary shut-down and display old TV test patterns. You know, like the ones where the TV goes—”
“Yup.” Mill made the high-pitched test pattern sound.
That got Rudy’s attention. He broke away from the taped rugby match from 1989 and strolled over. I used the opportunity to order a Mexican chicken salad.
“So, maybe these test patterns are trying to tell you something?”
“I don’t know, you’ve got vacuum tubes in your head?”
“Gee, that’s funny, Mill. You better get over to the Improv and find an open mic. The wit is just pouring out of you today.”
Mill wagged a finger. “Hostility. Salad rage. It’s hit you already. Starve your body of meat and the next you know—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. The thing is, Mill, when I start going into a dream, I’m seeing some disturbing stuff, like a murder, blood, then boom, the visuals resolve into a dark line leading to a rectangle. Like I’ve switched channels. No matter where I turn, everything looks like I’m on a flat map. My surroundings are almost white. So, I follow this line to a rectangle.”
“I wake up.”
Mill popped a few fries into his mouth. “You’re a strange man, Gus. And boring as a turkey burger.”
“You know what, I’m good chasing down a cheating husband, or whichever employee is stealing from the till. I’m happy without the mayhem and murder.”
Special sauce painted the corner of Mill’s mouth. “Maybe you’re dreaming the inside of my head? I see patterns all the time. Like, when I wake up in the middle of the night, there they are: swirls and hearts, like a paisley shirt.”
“You eating Lucky Charms before bed, Mill?”
“God help me, if I saw the inside of your melon.” I took a sip of ale. “How’s your turkey burger now? You getting used to it?”
The slightly startled look on his face told me he’d forgotten it was turkey. “Not bad…for a dead bird.”
An attractive and well-dressed young woman entered the pub and sat at a corner table. I nudged Mill. “Look what the train brought in.”
Rudy placed the Mexican chicken salad in front of me, grabbed a menu and took it over to his new customer.
Mill said, under his breath, “Wrong place, lady.”
We laughed and turned back to our upgraded pub grub.
After a bit of mumbled conversation, I heard Rudy say, “He’s right over there.” I turned and saw him pointing in my direction. My curiosity was piqued when the woman got up and headed over.
“You forget to pay your alimony, Mill?” I nodded toward the newcomer as she approached.
“Never seen her before,” said Mill.
She stood behind me and cleared her throat. “Excuse me, are you August Chase?”
I turned in my chair to face her. She was in her late twenties, with shoulder-length brown hair and dark eyes. “Yes?”
“Do you have a minute?” She seemed flustered.
I smiled. “What can I do for you?”
She leaned forward. “It’s about a case. A very important case. My brother. He’s in jail for something he didn’t do. I’m trying to help with an appeal.” She offered me a weak smile, but her eyes shouted hurt, exasperation, and desperation. The emptiness from dealing with an uncaring system.
“Why don’t you make an appointment with my office? Set up a meeting, and you can bring me the facts of the case. I’ll see what I can do.”
“But I’ve come in from Elgin, Connecticut.”
“Oh,” I said, both startled and flattered. Had I a reputation already? “You came all the way in from Connecticut? You should have called first.”
“I did call. I’ve left you a few messages,” she said, without a hint of annoyance. “I’m Sherry Hart. I was coming into town anyway, so I thought I’d drop by your office.”
I turned to Mill, who was looking straight ahead, grinning ear to ear. Office? I had no stinking office. I worked out of my apartment. I remembered hearing her messages. She hadn’t gone into much detail, just mentioned her brother’s name and that he’d been convicted of killing a girl. Her second message went into more detail, so out of curiosity, I looked him up. Connecticut vs. William Littlefield. Felony murder. He was convicted of kidnapping a checkout person named Connie Wells from a grocery store parking lot and cutting her throat. She bled out. From everything else I read about him, he was painted as a nasty piece of work, had a criminal record dating from the age of eighteen. I knew almost instantly this was not a case I wanted. I had no intention of calling her back, and had hoped she’d just go away.
“When I looked for your office, the woman said you might be having lunch here, so I came.”
“What woman?” I asked.
“Your neighbor, I think. Older lady.”
Helga, the woman upstairs. I’d been friendly with her for years. Great neighbor and a lovely woman, but she couldn’t keep her mouth shut to save her life.
“Please, Mr. Chase. I really need your help.”
The hopeful look in her eye softened my resolve. I slid off the barstool and grabbed my salad. “Let’s go sit.”
We found a booth in the back of the dining room. Mill hovered over us, holding his beer. “Mind if I join you?”
I turned to Sherry. “This is my partner, Mill.”
She nodded and he sat. She glanced around the nearly empty dining room, as if there may be someone lurking nearby to listen in, then leaned in. “I’m helping with his appeal. I’ve gotten a lawyer and a small team together.”
“A team?” I said.
She hesitated, as if deciding whether to go all in, then said, “I have a small group of experts. They volunteer. We believe in him, my brother, and in what we’re doing.”
She read my doubtful look and gained a determined stance. “So, you’re familiar with his case? Well, he’s innocent, Mr. Chase. He’s no angel, I know that. But he didn’t kill that girl. We need to find the real killer. Or at least, create overwhelming doubt. The new evidence will show that.”
Mill gave me a bemused look, but I felt the weight behind her words. Something in her voice, that singular line of thought articulated with an undercurrent of emotion.
“After you called, I did some research online,” I said.
“Then you know the State’s case was circumstantial. The jury was poisoned against him. There was blatant prejudice toward my brother.”
“Murder will do that,” said Mill.
She frowned. “The press was awful. They printed lies spread by the police. I don’t understand why, but the cops lied to the media throughout the whole trial.”
I sensed she wanted to believe herself, but was losing the fight, worn down by the system. The grind of it, jumping through bureaucratic hoops. It was three years since the conviction, and would probably take a lot longer than that to mount a convincing appeal.
“Convicted in the press?” said Mill.
Sherry nodded. “It was more than that. They were out to get him no matter what. It was all circumstantial. We need a smoking gun, and I’m convinced it’s in the leads the cops never ran down.”
“Leads they didn’t pursue? Like what? Give me an example,” I said.
“I can name three people who had better motive and opportunity than my brother. Only one of them got beyond a preliminary interview with the cops.”
“You’ve got names?”
“Yes, in the file. Richard Lake is one. He was the prime suspect, at first.”
That name rang a bell. I’d read something about him. “The cop who committed suicide?”
She nodded. “Some say he killed himself out of guilt, to spare his family.”
“Spare them from what? They never found anything.”
She looked defiantly at me. “They didn’t look deep enough. He had a connection with the victim. Some of it came out after the trial.”
“What connection?” said Mill.
“He dated her for a short time in high school. Also, he knew her from around town. But, I’m convinced there’s more to it than that. I think there was a romantic connection.”
“Worth looking into,” I said.
“I remember reading about this case,” Mill said. “These theories didn’t fly at trial, so what makes you think—”
I held up my hand. Mill took a sip of beer and looked away.
“A murder conviction,” I said, “is very hard to overcome, Sherry. They’re practically set in stone. You need a hell of a lot more than reasonable doubt to overturn it.”
“And we’ll find it. I know we will. We have funds, Mr. Chase.”
“Call me Gus.”
She nodded and gave me an eager grin.
“Okay,” I continued. “If you’re sure you want me, I’ll take a look, see where we go from here.”
She held something in her open hand. “This is Connie’s high school ring.”
It took a second before I realized she wanted me to give her a psychic reading while holding the victim’s ring. I shook my head. “I don’t do that.”
“But, you are sensitive, right? You see things?”
Oh boy. Here it comes. “That’s not the way I work.”
Mill snorted, then looked at the floor, like he was searching for a lost French fry. I wanted to kick him in the kneecap.
“Okay. I have, in the past, been able to get some readings by touching familiar objects.” This hadn’t happened since the line dreams, but I couldn’t tell her that. And I wasn’t sure I didn’t want it to stay that way. “But recently, that’s changed. What I mean is, the way it works, I look at the evidence and follow the leads, just like any other detective. If I happen to have some special insights, I use them.” I felt deflated just saying those words. I was admitting that August Chase, detective, was a regular guy, even though I didn’t want to believe it.
Her eagerness faded, like she’d expected me to go into a trance or something, but I couldn’t conjure an image or a dream to save my life. And to tell the truth, it was refreshing. Nothing better than waking up from a night’s sleep not remembering anything more than a few dark lines running across a white field. That image beat blood and guts any day.
“I thought you were psychic?”
I stared at her, but said nothing.
“I thought you had the gift of sight?”
I shook my head, trying to let her down gently.
“I was hoping you could see what really happened and work your way back from there. I thought that was how you operated?”
“To be honest with you, Sherry, that is what’s happened in some of my cases. But that ability has been fading. I don’t know when, or even if it will return.”
Tears welled in her eyes.
“Hey, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But you have to know, I didn’t return your call for that reason,” I lied. I hadn’t called her back because it seemed an impossible case, and I didn’t like taking money for impossible cases. I took cases that were worth fighting, and didn’t involve helping career criminals.
She blew her nose, then shook her head. “I didn’t think it was real, anyway. Whoever heard of a real psychic, let alone a psychic detective?”
“I am a detective. Just a regular one…for now.”
She slid out of the booth and stared down at me, then reached into her bag and slapped an inch-thick folder onto the table. “Here’s a copy of everything I’ve got so far. Have a look. If you find anything interesting, call me.”
The edges of the file were tattered and torn from carrying it around. Her name and phone number were printed neatly across the cover.
Mill cleared his throat and she looked at him. “We have a good team, Miss,” he said. “I don’t think you could do any better. We analyze data for large companies all the time, find thieves, cheaters, felons.”
“I’ve read the accounts,” she said, presumably referring to the exploits listed on our new company website, Intuitive Detective Agency. Designed and written by Mill, it was more verbose than I’d wanted. She turned to me. “I have to say, Mr. Chase—”
“I’m disappointed. You advertise yourself far better than you come off.” With that, she walked away.
I stared down at the folder.
Mill slapped the table with his palm. “Well, she had the money for a miracle, but not for real detective work. Forget her, Gus. This nut is too hard to crack.” He took a sip of beer and frowned. “Let the lawyers figure it out. Besides, it’s in Elderberry, Connecticut.”
“Elgin, Connecticut,” I said. “What did she mean, how I ‘come off’?”
“I told you to be humble on the website.”
“I want changes made.”
“No more psychic references. Did she expect me to wear a three-piece suit and a monocle? Have a third eye painted on my forehead and a crystal ball?”
Mill laughed. “I have two, but they ain’t crystal.”
I shot him an annoyed look, but that seemed to encourage him.
“Probably expected a Sherlock Holmes cap and pipe.”
“You’re not helping, Mill.”
“Okay, I’ll change the website.”
I stared down at the folder representing hundreds of diligent hours searching police files, trace evidence, and witness accounts, knowing I may be neck-deep in it as soon as I got home.
Sherry turned the corner, and I realized she’d only gone to the ladies’ room. She stood close to the table and hoisted her jacket up over her shoulders. “Do you have any interest in this case, or not?”
“Good. I’ll hire you, Mr. Chase. Against my better instincts. I should really just take my file and leave, but I find the whole thing…” she indicated the both of us, pointing with her index finger like a divining rod, “…interesting. The whole psychic thing. I’ve gone every other route. If you find anything, we’ll pay you. If you don’t find anything, we’ll pay you, but not as much, obviously. There’s a bonus if you bring us enough evidence for a new trial. How much do you normally charge?”
“It depends on the case,” I said.
“Well, how about this one?”
“Seventy-five dollars an hour, normally,” Mill said. “Each.”
“We have a budget. Ten thousand dollars. Give or take. And don’t just invoice me. I want to see what you do. Receipts, mileage logs, everything.”
I stood up. “I run things by the book, Ms. Hart. I log everything.”
“By the book,” echoed Mill.
“Good.” She gave him a slightly sarcastic grin and turned to me. “Thank you, Mr. Chase. We have a deal. Please call me as soon as you uncover anything or if you need more information. I’m also available on Skype anytime.”
“Okay,” I said, and followed her to the door. “I’ll call you after I go through the file. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions.”
She smiled. “I’ll be in touch. Probably every day. I’ve made this my mission.” Her eyes sank into that lost look she’d had earlier. “He’s my older brother. I love him. And he didn’t do this. I have to get him out.”
I nodded. “You’re a good sister.” We shook hands, then she hurried out the door.