Yellow and black police tape flapped in the air like a drove of buzzing bees, swarming around the skeletal building that stood on the corner of Main and First.
Gera wasn’t afraid of being stung. She slipped beneath the flimsy barrier and walked right up to the railings, eager to view the crime scene in the light of day.
The structure looked different by day. Starker. There was really no other way to describe the old building than to say it was gutted, stripped of all but its outer frame and the inner support walls. Staring at the far wall of century-old masonry, Gera still recognized the raw beauty in the building’s architecture. Perhaps that beauty had spared the ruins from final destruction.
That, Gera conceded, and the historical significance. She stepped back to read the plaque that identified the building as the old Bartlett Hotel. It was built in 1901, after its wooden predecessor—the first two-story building in Jerome—burned to the ground three years earlier. The Bartlett featured five rooms for stores along First Street, explaining the series of inner chambers stretching along the far side of the building. Those, too, were gutted, most of them now filled with grass, weeds, and rubbish. According to the plaque, the interior of the hotel was quite lavish, with each room decorated in a different color. Before the building was deemed unstable in the slides of the thirties, and before the second floor was completely dismantled and sold for salvage in the fifties, the Bartlett housed a variety of shops and businesses, including a pharmacy, newspaper, and a bank.
That explained the monstrosity on the left.
By today’s standards, the vault was tiny, not much more than a dozen feet in either direction. Gera thought of a story she had covered last month, about a man in Indiana who was preparing for the fall of Wall Street and the world economy as we know it. He had installed a vault twice this size in his own private home. This ancient commercial model, she noted, was constructed from a massive chunk of concrete that sat two floors deep and accessed by a single doorway. Without a sub-floor, that doorway was now some fifteen feet in the air. Not that it mattered; she could see into the cement vault and knew that it, too, was completely gutted.
The only money left in the one-time bank was now scattered across the floor below. Tens of thousands of coins littered the sub-level, resembling a giant wishing well gone dry. Collection vessels—urns, a rusty bucket, and, of all things, a disembodied commode—snaked throughout the space, encouraging bystanders to perfect their aim. All it cost was the change in their pockets.
Tossed coins were where the similarities between a wishing well and the old hotel-turned-bank ended. Few wishing wells featured crime scene markers. Here, a parade of the tented white markers marched in a crooked line through the coins, vaunting the shape of a sprawled body.
Like much of the town, the old Bartlett stood on a grade. What was sub-level along Main Street became street level around the corner. Gera followed the sidewalk down First Street, acknowledging the operate word was definitely down. The sidewalk fell with the steep angle of the hill. By the time she reached the first inner support wall, she stood directly in front of the crime scene.
As luck would have it—hers, not poor Abe’s—the site was clearly visible by a huge arched opening within the brick, the first of three along this side of the building. Gera suspected this had never been an actual doorway. Most likely, it was a plate-glass window, a sneak peek into the wonders that lay beyond.
If the masonry was any indication, The Bartlett was quite fancy for its day. In her mind’s eye, Gera pictured tables set with white starched linens and gleaming silver candlesticks, glimpsed from street level through the grand window. Had commoners peered through the glass, wishing they were a part of the finery? Did they look down at their calloused hands and thrice-mended clothes and find themselves lacking? Did they turn away from the glitter of sparkling wines and crystal chandeliers to drudge their way down the hill, toward their own small and dingy homes on the lower level of town? When the hotel tossed out their excess and rubbish, was it their own rooftops it landed upon?
Gera edged closer. Ornate ironwork now filled the arch, some creative artisan’s answer to stained glass. The result was as artistic as any intricate panel of colorful bits, but this barrier was stronger. Gera could see through the iron bars, but there was no penetrating them.
Abe’s body was found just a few feet inside, near the interior brick wall. She angled her camera through the fancy railing and snapped off a dozen photos.
Three sweeping steps, at least six feet wide and gracefully curved for a more dramatic feel, accessed whatever lay beyond that wall. Had it been a stage of some kind? Gera could imagine operas and vaudeville acts, brought in to appeal to the finer senses of The Bartlett’s elite clientele. But no, there wasn’t enough room to serve as a stage.
Gera stepped back to study the side view of the building. The other two arches, she noted, had subtle gates set within the intricate rails. Both securely locked, but they offered a means of entry she hadn’t noticed the night before.
She saw now that both housed recessed entrances, each with double doors for two distinct entries. No doubt, both had been magnificent in their day, a far cry from the weathered, dilapidated panels that now let in more of the elements than they kept out. Most of the crown molding was still intact, a product from a by-gone era, hand carved with fleur de lis and intricate markings. A hint of pale green clung stubbornly to the wood, perhaps protected from the harsh weather in some small measure by the barest of ceiling still stretched over the stoop. It wasn’t much of a covering, with daylight clearly visible through the matchstick-thin laths, but it was more than existed elsewhere. The only wood left in the entire building was behind these two arches.
The main entrance to the hotel had probably been in the last of the archways, if the doors were any indication. They once swung inward, inviting guests to step inside, beckoning them toward the staircase beyond. Gera imagined the rusted hinges no longer obliged such movement. The brass push plates were long gone, as were the full panels of glass from both doors and from the massive arched space above them. No doubt, that had once been stained glass. Now they were but gaping holes, showcasing a crumbling staircase that arose amid a swatch of grass and saplings, and led to nowhere.
The double doors in the first archway stood slightly ajar. Gera wondered if it were from recent use or warped wood. They, too, were missing the glass from their oval insets. The doors led to the area she first believed was a stage. Now she wondered if it weren’t the front desk area. A few partial walls still existed down the narrow galley, not much more solid than the spotty ceiling overhead. None of the structure had a roof.
So perhaps, she surmised, the curved steps had been part of the entryway. Just three steps, but enough to make a grand entrance.
Gera imagined ladies dressed in their evening finery, sequins and feathers and heels, stepping off the grand steps like a model steps off a runway. With their frivolous hats and long, side-slit skirts, they would step daintily into the room, offering a modest peek at their stocking-clad legs and shockingly bare ankles, all in the guise of elegantly maneuvering the steps. The display would be subtle, and nothing as distasteful and brazen as shown by the fallen doves just a few streets over. When the lights were out and the wives were soundly sleeping in their beds, Gera imagined many of the same men from these very rooms slipped away, traversing the dark and crooked streets to visit those doves. She idly wondered if the results of any such late-night rendezvouses had been born at the hotel she now occupied. The babies might have well been born in the very room she slept in last night.
Shaking the images from her head, Gera focused on the crime scene. Last night, the locals had been content to believe that a ghost tossed—or carried—Abe Cunningham over the impossibly tall railings, causing his death. She saw a more likely scenario in broad day.
Abe, or someone he met there, had a key that unlocked the gates and allowed them access to these doors. Perhaps that was why the panels now hung slightly askew. Keeping to the semi-privacy of the inner chambers, the two had a discussion that ended in an argument. A shuffle pursued and Abe was pushed down the steps. At the right angle and with the right force, he could’ve hit his head or broken his neck. His death may or may not have been an accident, but one thing Gera was certain of—it hadn’t come at the hands of a ghost.
“You again. You’re standing in my crime scene.”
The snarled words came from behind her. Gera whipped around, dismayed to see the chief of police behind her. With the glare of the mid-morning sun behind him, he looked more menacing than she remembered.
She flashed her mother’s smile, hoping it had half the charisma her father claimed it did. It hadn’t seemed to impress the lawman last night, but maybe the daylight would change his perspective, as well.
No such luck. The corners of his mouth drooped alongside his mustache. He stood with his feet planted apart, hands propped upon his belt. Gera half-expected to see a six-shooter strapped to his side, not the sleek Glock nestled in its holster. He may not have worn chaps and a rawhide vest, but the khaki uniform wearing his rugged form did nothing to diminish his old West demeanor.
She couldn’t resist the smile that teased her lips. “Seriously? You’re going to draw on me?”
For one solid second, he stared at her in confusion. “What?” Then he glanced down, at the stance of his own legs and the implied placement of his hands. He immediately dropped his hand and pulled his feet closer together, making his tall form that much taller. “No, of course not. But I need to ask that you move.”
“It’s morning,” Gera reminded him. “You said I could take all the photos I wanted.”
Again, her smile was lost on him. He lifted the ribbon of tape and replied calmly, if not sternly. “You can. From this side of the tape.”
“But I can’t see as well from back there.”
His voice remained even. “I never mentioned how close you could get, just that you could click away to your heart’s content.”
She mumbled under her breath as she ducked beneath the tape. Some dark comment about him not having a heart of his own.
Popping upright on the other side, Gera fired off her first question. “Chief Anderson, what can you tell me so far about the investigation?”
“Nothing? Surely you have a few leads.”
“Didn’t say I had no leads. Said I had nothing to tell you.”
Biting back her frustration, Gera kept that smile plastered on her face. “Have you ruled Mr. Cunningham’s death as accidental, or as a homicide?”
“We’re still investigating.”
“If it is ruled a homicide, do you have any suspects?”
“Too soon to say.”
“Were there any witnesses?”
“None have come forward so far.”
“When was the last time there was a murder in town, Chief?”
His bushy brows puckered at the sudden change in topic. He looked as if he suspected a trap of some kind, so he stepped carefully with his words. “Jerome is a peaceful town. Murder is rare around here.”
“But it does happen.”
He grudgingly agreed. “Of course. But it’s been three years since it’s happened in this town.”
“Until last night.”
“As I said, Miss Stapleton, we’re still investigating.”
“I understand Mr. Cunningham had some previous troubles with the bank and a matter of back taxes.”
Miles Anderson eyed her with cool reserve. “Understand this. I have nothing to say about the current investigation. Or the deceased.”
His high-handed manner rankled Gera’s nerves. She couldn’t resist goading him, just a bit. She cocked her head to one side and flashed a smile as manufactured as molded plastic. “Not even to assure the townspeople they’re in no danger from a killer?”
“I have no reason to believe the residents are in any more danger today than they were this time last week, Miss Stapleton.” His tone almost sounded bored.
“Very well, Chief. You won’t talk about Abe Cunningham or his death. Will you at least talk to me about the recent troubles you’ve had in town?”
“You’ll need to be more specific than that, Miss Stapleton. Like all towns, we have our fair share of troubles from time to time. For example, we’re currently having trouble with our local internet provider here on the mountain. Bandwidths and download speeds have fallen off drastically within the last few weeks. For most residents and particularly our businesses, that classifies as major trouble.”
She glanced down at her notes and nodded. “Actually, I did hear about that. I also heard about a string of petty thefts, two assault cases, one breaking and entering, attempted arson, and three cases of robbery or attempted robbery. I’d like to talk with you about all of these, Chief Anderson.”
His face tightened into a pinch and his mustache drooped south. “With most of those cases still under investigation, I’m not at liberty to discuss them.”
“But these are all a matter of public record, Chief. I have no intentions of revealing classified information, but I would like the opportunity to ask you a few questions.” She detected the slightest of cracks in his stony demeanor. Her next words were hasty. “Could I buy you a cup of coffee?”
The length of time it took him to answer was an insult within itself. Gera felt her face grow warm. One would think she asked to pull his eye teeth. With no anesthesia.
“One cup,” he finally ground out.
Gera tried not to be offended when he took her elbow and led her across the busy street. She told herself he did if for her own safety, not to treat her like a child. He thrust his arm out to stop the one-way traffic, placing his large body between her and the oncoming cars. Just like a parent would do, Gera thought irritably. She resisted the urge to drag her feet.
Once inside the café, he released her arm. A harried waitress threw a smile their way and waved in the general direction of the crowded dining room. “Find a seat and I’ll be right over.”
They settled around a tiny table shoved against the front window. Knowing the clock was already ticking, Gera wasted no time in beginning her interview.
“Let’s start with the recent rash of thefts. Have any of the cases been solved so far?”
Miles Anderson studied her for a long moment before blowing out a deep breath. Gera thought she heard a note of defeat in the weary tune. “I can say one thing for you, Miss Stapleton. You don’t give up.” An odd light of appreciation wormed into his sharp gaze. “I like that in a person, so I’ll answer your questions.”
Gera thought that was already a given, since he had accepted her invitation for coffee, but she wisely kept her mouth shut and waited for him to continue.
“As of yet, none of the cases you mentioned have been solved. It is very unusual for us to have a crime spree here in Jerome, particularly one that doesn’t involve out-of-towners. Most of our complaints revolve around fender-benders, scratched car doors, speed control, that sort of thing. From time to time, we get a few strangers here on the mountain, the ones that think we’re either too lazy or too ignorant to solve a case of shoplifting or outright theft. We’ll hear a string of complaints up and down the streets, but the complaints go away the moment the troublemakers roll out of town.”
It was the most Gera had ever heard the man say. Before she could reply, the waitress popped up by their side. “What can I get started for you two?”
Chief Anderson was quick to answer, “Just coffee, Loretta.”
“Could you make a fresh pot, please?” Gera smiled prettily, ignoring the scowl her comment earned from her companion.
The waitress had barely turned away before Gera pelted the officer with more questions. “Are you saying you suspect a local resident is responsible for the crimes?”
“We haven’t ruled out the possibility—or probability—of that being the case.” His shaggy mustache turned downward. “I can tell you this. If it is a stranger, they aren’t registered in any of the hotels or rental properties around town. It could be someone coming and going in and out of town, but a hasty getaway off this mountain isn’t an option. Which leaves us with the very real possibility of our culprit being one of our own citizens.”
Gera heard the unmistakable sorrow in Miles Anderson’s voice. It was obvious how much he cared about the town and its residents. The thought of one of their own being guilty of the crimes wasn’t only disappointing, but disheartening.
Gera tread softly with her next question. “From what I understand—and, to be quite honest, the reason I was sent here to cover this story—many of the townspeople are accusing Horace McGruder of committing the crimes. How do you respond to that theory, Chief Anderson?”
He all but snorted. “Horace McGruder died in the blast of ‘38.”
“I’m aware of that. But local legend says he still roams the streets of Jerome, and that up until recently, he was a friendly ghost.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Miss Stapleton?”
“Honestly? No. Do you?”
Instead of offering a direct answer, Chief Anderson looked out the plate-glass window to the town beyond. In one sweeping glance, he saw at least five references to ghosts. Many of the local merchants built their businesses—and staked their success—around the legend and exploitation of ghostly spirits.
His sigh was heavy. “Doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is that half of our town does believe in ghosts. The other half makes their living off them. Tourism revived our town when it would’ve died and withered away. And ghosts bring in the tourists.”
It wasn’t the answer Gera was hoping for. His cryptic reply did little to answer her original query. “People actually believe Mac still roams these streets, including one of your own officers. Don’t you find it a bit… odd… that so many people not only believe in Mac’s ghost, but also believe that he is somehow responsible for the string of recent crimes?”
Loretta returned with two cups of coffee. Steam wafted up from the hot liquid, momentarily fogging the eyeglasses that slipped down her nose as she leaned over to deposit the fresh brew. She scrunched up her face, realigning the foggy lenses so she could stab Gera with a pointed gaze. “Don’t mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard you mention Mac. Being an outsider and all, I can see where you might be skeptical. But I can assure you, Mac still walks these streets. I’ve seen him myself, on more than one occasion.”
Okay, she could play along. “How do you know it’s him?” Gera asked.
“Not many men are as long and thin as Mac. And they say ole Mac had quite the fashion sense, even for a miner. He always wore a dark wool jacket, white placket shirt, even an old stovepipe hat. Looked a bit like Abraham Lincoln, folks always said. Not too many men dress like that nowadays.”
“Is that how people identify him, simply by his clothes?”
“That, and the fact that his hat sits sideways now. Only one ear, you know,” she offered in explanation.
Miles Anderson was already sipping his coffee, meaning Gera’s time with the man was limited. “Loretta, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with Mac, but I hate to take up the chief’s valuable time. Could we talk later?”
“Sure thing, hon.” She turned away, tossing back the words, “I’ll be here till three.”
Gera studied the man across from her. His face was impassive as he sipped the hot liquid. Apparently, discussing a ghost was nothing out of the ordinary. “No comment?” she asked dryly.
“I think Loretta’s comment speaks for itself. You can see that people do, indeed, believe that Mac’s ghost exists.”
Gera put up her hands, waving her palms in lieu of a white flag. “So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mac’s ghost is alive and well.” It galled her to say the words, but she forced them out. “According to your own Officer Cooper, Mac has suddenly gone from watching over the town and finding lost children to stirring up trouble and now, possibly even killing a man. How do you explain that, Chief Anderson? Isn’t that odd behavior, even for a ghost?”
“Mike Cooper talks too much,” he muttered into his coffee. Setting the cup down with enough force to send a bit of dark liquid splashing over the rim, the policeman looked Gera in the eye. “I agreed to talk with you about matters of public record. I can assure you, you won’t find mention of a killer ghost in any of my reports, Miss Stapleton.”
Gera was duly chastised. “Fair enough. So, getting back to public record, I understand this newest crime wave began about two months ago?”
His nod was terse. “We didn’t recognize a pattern at first, until about the third or fourth incident.”
“Is there any one thing that ties these incidents together and leads you to believe they were all committed by the same perpetrator?”
“Other than the fact that crimes like these don’t happen here on the mountain and it would be highly unlikely for a half dozen or more people to suddenly engage in criminal activity, all at the same time? No, not particularly,” he admitted.
Gera shrugged and threw out a few suggestions. “It could be gang related,” she offered. “A rite of passage, of sorts. Or some misguided initiation into a fraternity or club.”
He nodded, but looked unimpressed. “Could be,” he agreed dubiously.
“But you don’t think so.”
“All of your scenarios would be highly unlikely. Not impossible,” he granted, “but unlikely.”
“Were the victims and/or the witnesses able to give you a description?”
Something in his resigned tone prompted her to say, “And let me guess. They all reported seeing a tall, thin man dressed like Abraham Lincoln. Right?”
He was slow to answer. When he did, his voice was tight. “Something like that.”
Gera looked down at her notes. Jillian had e-mailed her an update this morning. “What can you tell me about accusations of corruption at the County Clerk’s office?”
“Only what you’ll find in the record. I believe there was a public investigation into that over in Prescott, the county seat.”
“But I understand that one of Jerome’s own citizens,” she glanced down at her notes, “one Frieda White lost her job because of allegations of misconduct?”
“Did you find that in the public record?”
“Then no comment.”
“What about Abe Cunningham? I understand he had some trouble with the bank recently.”
Beneath shaggy brows, the chief of police gave her a reproachful look. “You know I’m not at liberty to discuss a victim’s financial affairs.”
“Even if they’re a matter of public record? I see the state put a lien on his property for non-payment of taxes.”
“You would need to discuss that with someone at the Department of Revenue, not with me.”
“Your officers served him papers.”
“If you found that in the public record, why are you asking me about it now?”
“I thought you might have something further to say about it.”
“I don’t.” The policeman grabbed his cup, chugged back the remainder of the coffee, and set it down again with a final thud. “Thank you for the coffee, Miss Stapleton. I’m afraid I must get back to my duties now.”
Gera bit back her frustrations. You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar, her Grams always said.
But, a voice inside her mind argued, I’m not trying to catch flies. I’m trying to catch a break!
She pasted on a smile and extended her hand. “Thank you, Chief Anderson, for agreeing to answer a few of my questions.”
He almost looked sincere. “You had more?”
Breaking out in a rueful grin, Gera shook her head in weary resignation. “Yes, Chief, I had more.”
Something in his gaze flickered. It wasn’t until he stuffed his hat onto his head and breezed out the door that she realized the source of the flicker.
He had finally responded to her smile.