Murder Sits In
Charlie Chief and his son Jimmy splashed through water puddles before bounding up the stone steps two at a time. They hurried to get beneath the front porch canopy for protection from the lashing rain. Lightning lit up the night sky.
On their way to the rambling country house south of Galena, Illinois, Charlie remembered the area being scenic, but with countless raindrops dashing against the windshield from out of the blackness, navigating Blackjack Road while watching for their destination took all of his attention. A winding, hilly road had brought them to the property, and a tree-lined driveway led to the two story house.
Charlie said, "Whoever first said 'it's not a fit night for man nor beast' was talking about a night like tonight."
Jimmy wiped raindrops off his eyebrows with a handkerchief. "Even spirits wouldn't be out tonight. Let's get inside quick and find out what's up."
Charlie thumped the brass knocker on the oak door. "I haven't seen Velma Vanderduff in ages, but she needs her friends around her when that medium tries to contact Vernon. We'll watch for scams, too."
Jimmy shielded his face from the blowing rain. "In other words, you're a skeptic, like I am." Thinking the door would never open, he knocked twice.
"Some of these so-called spiritualists prey on vulnerable widows. Velma and Vernon were as close as your mother and I were before she passed away."
"Do you think that us being detectives has anything to do with the invitation, Dad?"
"She didn't really say she needed detectives, she just asked us to be here; but I read between the lines of her letter." Charlie knocked on the door again, but more vigorously.
Jimmy nodded. "You're a great one for seeing a need when there's trouble in any size, shape or form."
Velma Vanderduff's letter had crossed Charlie's desk the week before. In it, she reminisced about the good old days, finally getting around to the point, the séance. She claimed Dick Tate, her secretary, had recommended a medium, Magda. She reputedly had genuine success contacting people from beyond, and Dick trusted her implicitly. Velma had enclosed Magda's business card. It read: "I Make Connections That AT&T Can't." The message on it was as intriguing as Velma's letter.
Charlie had phoned Dick Tate, accepting the invitation, but Dick urged him to stay away. He'd handle everything. Afterward, Charlie contacted Velma for an explanation.
"Dick has no right to cancel my invitation. Please come, Charlie, as one friend to another. Nobody knows that you and Jimmy are private investigators. It's not that I expect anything for you to investigate, but I need your support and insight," she had said. "I'll tend to Dick. I keep him on because he knows where to lay his hands on just about everything at a moment's notice, but he tries to lord it over everybody, too."
Now the door swung open. A smiling Velma Vanderduff welcomed Charlie and Jimmy inside. Entering the foyer, Charlie cast an admiring glance at white wainscoting on the lower half of the walls. Above the wainscoting the walls had been painted a crisp terra cotta color.
Like Charlie, Velma was in her early fifties and as wide as Jimmy and Charlie put together. About to throw her arms around both Charlie and Jimmy, she stepped back. "Hugs can wait until you two hang up your raincoats." She bent forward, kissing each man on his wet cheek.
Pulling a lace handkerchief from her sleeve, she dabbed moisture from her lips. "How long has it been, guys?" Without giving them a chance to answer, she continued. "A few white hairs among the black, Charlie." She squeezed his biceps, then shook her hands, drying them off. "You must find time to work out. I love men of action, and Jimmy, you're as tall as your father now. Six feet, I judge."
Charlie smiled. "What do you think of our FBI raincoats?"
Velma stared at Charlie before venturing to ask, "FBI raincoats?"
"They cover up everything."
"Oh, Charlie, you know how to bring a smile to my lips." Tittering, she thumped him on the back.
Jimmy smiled, then grunted. "I wish I'd thought of that one."
Having wiped his feet on a rug, Charlie trod carefully over highly varnished, wide pine boards and past a balloon-back settee with caned seat. He hung the wet coats on brass hooks, and then brushed raindrops from his black slacks.
Velma turned to Charlie. "This has been a trying time with Vernon dying in that horrible accident a year ago today, and Lottie's flings are a constant trial. You remember my daughter, Lottie, don't you, Charlie?"
Nodding, he straightened his navy blue and gray striped tie. He vividly remembered that Lottie had been a flirt in her childhood.
Velma continued, "But I still have a sense of humor. I'm holding up fine, especially now when we're about to hear from the beyond. I do hope he's happy." Her voice quivered for an instant. "Changing the subject, I'm glad you listened to me and became a detective. Otherwise, you might still be guiding outdoorsmen for that awful Woody Nessmuk and living on the Reservation in northern Wisconsin."
Jimmy figured that the Nessmuk guy was from before his time and promptly put questions aside.
While not contradicting Velma, Charlie remembered that his late and beloved wife had more than a little to do with his decision to give up guiding outdoorsmen and become an investigator. He smiled. "Woody was an odd duck, but he grew on you. One day I hope that we'll patch up our differences."
"Yes. Well, you're here now. That's what's important. Thank you for coming to my country cottage. The others are already here, somewhere. I'll round them up. Magda's in the library. She had Newton, my handyman, cart in her table, and she's been fiddling with it, making it 'other side' friendly."
Jimmy looked about, impressed. He pointed at vases containing enormous gladiola plants, red and white and all shades in between, intermixed with bamboo stalks, adorning every table. "Someone's into glads."
"Oh, yes. Vernon adored them, his favorite. Magda insisted on live flowering plants. I imposed upon my dearest friend, Finlay Featherstone, to get scads of them for me, to coax Vernon to show himself, you know. Actually, Finlay volunteered. He's been a constant source of strength, but he and Dick bickering about Magda has been stressful. Finlay knew her from his days in show business and doesn't put much stock in her ability. He urged me to rely on friends, not mediums, for solace."
Charlie, too, hoped Velma wouldn't be too disappointed when the séance proved a dud. He scratched his chin. "Finlay Featherstone. Wasn't he that great trumpet player until he couldn't hit the high notes any more?"
Thunder rumbled outside.
Sighing, Velma said, "Yes, impaired lung power. Now he's a world traveler. He's been just everywhere. You must ask him to tell you about his trip up the Amazon and his adventures with the natives on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and also in the jungles of Malaysia. I've encouraged him to write a book. He reminds me of one of those white hunters from novels with his thick white hair and mustache. Now with Vernon gone, he's becoming… romantic." She giggled. "Come along and meet him and the rest of my guests. Magda's in the library. You can get acquainted with her while I fetch the others."
Leaving the foyer, Velma ushered Charlie and Jimmy along a dark hallway with walls that reached into the blackness. Their footsteps thumped on the carpeted floor. After directing them into the dimly lighted library, Velma hurried back down the hall.
Charlie reasoned the dim lighting had been arranged in advance to add atmosphere for the séance. They entered the imposing library. Leather bound books lined all four walls and wooden bookcases gave off a soft glow. A dark complexioned woman dressed in a puffy Gypsy costume sat alone at a large, round table. She appeared to be in a trance or meditating.
Though the séance had yet to begin, Charlie and Jimmy sat down on cushioned Queen Anne chairs across the table from Magda, careful not to disturb her.
"Let me introduce myself," Charlie stood and extended his hand.
Without raising her eyes from the table, she said, "So you are Charlie Chief. You may feel amorous towards me, but it is my Gypsy magnetism. All real men feel the same way."
Charlie considered her convinced, not conceited.
"You have lost a beloved wife." She raised her eyes for an instant. "I contact wives, too. And you, Jimmy, will soon find true love in place of an unfaithful fiancée."
Jimmy's eyes widened. "Dad, how did she know about Mom… and Betty?"
A chill ran along Charlie's spine. He stared at Magda, trying to pick out something to set her apart from other seers, aside from being extremely attractive, or was that an illusion, too? She had to have been around for a while, since Finlay knew her from his entertaining days. Charlie glanced at her again. She didn't look a day over thirty.
Perhaps someone had briefed her, or... A little doubt crept into Charlie's brain. Could she possibly have a chance to contact Vernon? He'd wait with a more open mind. "Thanks for your offer, but I have my memories."
Before he could say another word, Velma and the other participants at the séance trooped into the semi-darkened room, past the scores of huge gladiolas in vases.
When they'd all seated themselves in chairs arranged around the table, Velma told Dick and Finlay that Charlie and Jimmy were old friends. Reaching across the table they shook hands.
Velma then introduced her daughter, Lottie, to Charlie and Jimmy. If Charlie's memory served him right, Lottie had to be in her early twenties. She sat between Charlie and Jimmy. Charlie had barely gotten comfortable when he felt something rubbing up and down his leg. First, thinking that the sensation had something to do with Magda and spirits, he looked up. Instead, Lottie winked and puckered her lips. Leaning to the side and craning his neck, he peeked under the table and saw Lottie's bare foot under his pant leg. After he glowered at her, she quickly turned her nose up at him.
Lottie turned to Jimmy, and instantly he tensed. He scrambled to his feet and motioned Charlie away from the table.
"We're about ready to start, you two," Velma said in a singsong voice.
"Right away, Mrs. Vanderduff," Jimmy said, then in a whisper, "What do you think, Dad?"
"One guess. Lottie ran her bare foot up and down your leg. Maybe she has a thing for Native American men, or she's between romances, and we were handy. In either case… She's after Finlay now."
"How can you tell?"
"Only her head and her fingers are above the table, and Finlay's smiling."
Looking cross, Velma said, "Sit up, Lottie, we're almost ready to begin."