Hush My Mouth

A Southern Fried Mystery

Southern Fried Mysteries featuring Avery Andrews (Volume 4 of 5)

Cathy Pickens

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter 1

An eternal question: If I started sliding, would a sticky patch of roofing tar stop me from plummeting two tall stories to my death?

I inched along the steep roof with my knees bent and mentally rehearsed aiming my fanny into a quick sit should gravity threaten to draw me over the edge.

Of course, with my natural grace, a slip of the foot would grab a patch of roofing tar at just the wrong angle and send me flying over the leaf-clogged copper gutters, past the too-often-painted gingerbread eaves, and onto the patched sidewalk or wide brick steps below. No chance I’d be cushioned by the thorny holly shrubs. Nope, it would be the sidewalk. Headfirst.

I hunkered down near a badly curled shingle, willing the worn shingles underfoot to have enough grit left in them to withstand the gravitational pull of the earth. I dabbed the stubby, stiff brush into the tar pot and stippled the goo thickly around the damaged shingle edges. Just this one last patch to do. Then I could inch my way over to the ladder, ease a foot onto the rungs, close my eyes, and climb down.

I had watched roofers amble with a relaxed, limber-legged gait, bouncing on bent knees. They made it look easy, so I’d told Melvin I’d just patch the leaks myself in the former Baldwin & Bates Funeral Home, now the combined offices of Avery Andrews, Attorney-at-Law, and Melvin Bertram Capital Ventures. In lieu of rent payments, of course. Now I understood why the two estimates I’d gotten from roofing contractors had been so outrageous.

Yet another prime illustration of something that had seemed like a good idea at the time. What had I been thinking? Okay, I’d been thinking about cash flow. Now I wished I’d also thought about life insurance and whether, from this height, a broken neck was instantly fatal or a lingering end.

I glanced over the gutter to the sidewalk below and contemplated another eternal question: Is it an immutable law of nature that unexpected company and inopportune personal moments coexist on the space-time continuum? It never fails. Company will catch you at your worst. Too early to be my new client—I hoped.

Two guys and a girl milled around on the front sidewalk. The Victorian house was an eye-catching mauve and architecturally interesting, but they had turned their backs to the house, choosing instead to take pictures of the eight-foot stone angel that stood on our front lawn.

The angel was an unusual choice for a signpost. She’d been destined for life as a grave marker until a former client had chosen to bequeath her to me. avery andrews, attorney-at-law was now discreetly engraved on her pedestal. She was a beautiful piece of art, and I’d smiled at the thought of having her, with her head bowed prayerfully, hands resting against an obelisk, her wings folded, a reverential beacon in front of the former funeral home. When I’d accepted her as a gift, I’d seen her as a guardian angel. I now feared she might become a beacon light for weirdos.

’Twas the season, though—the start of summer, when all manner of folks drove up Main Street in Dacus and straight into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Southern Appalachian chain dips into Upstate South Carolina. I hadn’t planned to turn the front of my office into a tourist photo op, the funereal equivalent of the World’s Largest Ball of String or the Virgin Mary in a Piece of Toast Museum.

I inched over to the edge of the porch and opened my mouth to yell for Melvin to come hold the ladder when I heard his voice from the porch. “May I help you?”

The three photography bugs had the good sense to act startled when he spoke.

“Hey,” the lanky blond fellow answered. “Hope you don’t mind. We didn’t step on the grass or nothing.”

The pockets of his cargo pants and his multipocketed vest bulged with so much photography paraphernalia that it visually doubled his slight size. “There’s somebody on your roof.” He craned his neck back to stare. I didn’t wave.

Melvin stepped out from under the porch eave and glanced up in my direction. In his most dignified radio-announcer voice, he said, “My lawyer.”

The girl, waifishly thin with white-blond hair scraped back into a wispy ponytail, stared up at me, her mouth round with surprise.

I sat on my heels and carefully tied the wire handle of my tar pot to the end of a thin rope, waiting for Melvin to finish toying with the visitors.

“I’m Colin, but they call me Mumler.” The talkative guy with the stuffed pockets stepped up to shake Melvin’s hand. The girl’s brother? I stared down at the top of his head, his spiky hair the same white-blond as the girl’s and, from this angle, so thin he almost looked bald.

“We’re ghost hunters,” Colin announced with the same enthusiasm a kid might tell his parents he’d made the basketball team. “This is most interesting. We were wondering if you’d allow us to take some readings inside. We understand this used to be a mortuary, and—”

“No.” Melvin’s tone was polite but firm.

“We wouldn’t disturb anything, Mr. Andrews. We’d just take some photogr—”

“I’m not Mr. Andrews,” Melvin said, his voice still level. “This is a place of business. I’m sure you understand.”

What the kids couldn’t know was, before this was a mortuary, it had been Melvin’s family home place. I didn’t know much about Melvin’s family, but they likely weren’t the kind of people who’d hang around to haunt a house. They were Presbyterians.

Melvin took a step toward the trio, ushering them down the sidewalk. His graying sideburns and neatly pressed oxford shirt lent him a certain authority. However, the leader of the ghost-hunting threesome wasn’t gently dissuaded or spooked.

“Do you know of other likely sites that might present paranormal activity? We take measurements, try to capture phenomena on film. In fact, we’re hoping to get enough material for a TV pilot.”

“Oh, really.” Even though I couldn’t see Melvin’s face, I could tell from his tone that his mouth was crooked up in a wry grin.

“Yessir.”

“Well, in that case . . .”

For Pete’s sake, get on with it and get me down from here. Was this the vantage point disembodied spirits had? Hovering overhead, studying the tops of our heads and listening to inane conversations? No wonder they decided to shake things up and play pranks. I was about to manifest my tar pot off the roof.

“Why don’t you try Highway 107 north of town? Toward Highlands. You’ll come to a picnic spot on your left called Moody Springs.”

Don’t drink the water, I thought. Nasty stuff tastes like tepid rust.

“A couple of miles farther up the mountain, there’s a pull-off on the right. A scenic overlook, though it’s a bit overgrown now. A soaking wet hitchhiker appears out of the fog, either at the overlook or at Moody Springs, then disappears when you set him out at his stop, at the other location.”

“Wow.” Melvin’s storytelling had hooked the girl.

“They say he piloted a small plane that crashed into the mountain back in the fifties. He prefers to appear in rain and fog.”

And to somebody who was drunk or sleep-deprived.

“Wow. Thanks, man. Maybe we can get some readings.”

“Or orb activity.” The guy with the brown ponytail who’d been silent up until now spoke with reverence. He shifted from one foot to another, ready to go in search of an orb, whatever that was.

“Thanks.” The girl waved back at Melvin. Her gauzy white skirt swirled about her legs as she followed the rest of the Ghost Squad down the sidewalk.

Melvin looked up at me, shaking his head. Nice to know he hadn’t forgotten me and my precarious perch while he played ghost guide.

After I lowered the tar pot, I let the rope drop. Melvin held the ladder and I eased myself around until my foot found the rung. That first step was always the worst for me. Stretching into limbo, fearful the ladder would begin to tilt into space.

“I can’t believe you sent those kids on a wild goose chase, Mr. Andrews,” I said when I touched ground.

A wry half smile still turned up one corner of his mouth as he dusted his hands off. “Seems they chose a wild chase without any help from me. You really need to get a receptionist. So much coming and going around here. I can’t be expected to be your greeter. Especially”—he cocked his head in the direction the trio had taken—“if you and your stone-faced friend here begin to attract the fringe element.”

I handed him the sticky tar pot, its rope trailing along the ground. “If you’d take care of patching your own leaky roof, Mr. Bertram, perhaps I’d have time to greet the weirdos myself. You know where the ladder goes.”

I took the porch steps two at a time. I had to hurry and get ready for the client who’d insisted on a morning appointment. I closed the front door without looking back. I knew Melvin would look dismayed, both at the tar-smeared pot in his hand and at the task of pulling down the extension ladder and hauling it to the huge garage around back, under the house. His penchant for order would be at war: leave the ladder in plain view of everyone traveling Main Street or risk getting dirty while wrestling it out of sight without my help. I knew if I glanced over my shoulder, I’d feel sorry for him and turn back to help. But I was a bit shaky-legged from both the physical and mental exertion of my roof walk.

Roof patching and other chores offset my rent payments even though Melvin might, at times, have been better served by paying professionals. But for the last three months, since I’d officially decided to set up practice in half the downstairs of his recently reacquired Victorian, it had been an amiable and mutually beneficial arrangement.

Today, though, my subcontractor work was interfering with my practice of law. I had a new client coming in just a few minutes. I’m not much of a primper, but I needed to shower, change clothes, and get back downstairs before Melvin had yet another count against me on the matter of no receptionist.

Melvin’s consulting work doesn’t entail clients coming to his office. When he’d invited me to share space, I wasn’t sure he’d foreseen the effect of clients dribbling into my office. Dribbling, not streaming. It wasn’t so much the quantity as it was the unpredictable but steady number of characters and odd cases that arrived, as this morning illustrated. I also had some doubts about my next appointment.

She’d called early this morning and needed to see me right away. Her sister was missing. When I’d suggested she call the sheriff, she cut me off, insisting it was more complicated than that. Now that I thought about it, maybe I should have asked the ghost hunters to stick around to help with the search.
 
Copyright © 2008 by Cathy Pickens. All rights reserved.