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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Your Killin' Heart

A Mystery

Peggy O'Neal Peden

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One


He was an icon in country music. He had written heartbreaking songs and sung them from a heart full of pain and self-imposed demons. Then he’d had the good business sense to die young—and somewhat mysteriously.

The Grand Ole Opry had turned down Jake Miller when he had tried to join, but now all the old-timers in Nashville talked as if they’d been his best friends. His brief career and life were enshrined in a museum case of revisionist memories, the truth as carefully filtered as too much moisture or sunlight.

My dad was a big fan. He played guitar. Who doesn’t around Nashville? And, as a young man, he had been in a band, just a few guys who would get together on weekends and play, their wives sitting bored in the kitchen waiting for them to get tired and go home. But it took a long time for them to get tired of picking Jake Miller songs.

That’s why I begged to go along. I just didn’t expect to find a body.

My friend Doug Elliott had mentioned that he had to pick up—sounded better than “repossess”—some paintings for his brother’s gallery. The Mockingbird Gallery, named for the Tennessee state bird, because the gallery focused on local artists.

“Why you?” I asked.

“You know Ken,” Doug said. “If there’s dirty work, let somebody else do it. I think he thinks people are intimidated because I’m a lawyer. He can apologize for me later, maybe still keep the client. It might be tricky. It’s Hazel Miller.”

“Hazel Miller? Jake Miller’s Hazel Miller?”

“Campbell…”

“I could help. It’ll be easier with a woman there.”

“Nothing is ever easier with you there, Campbell Hale.”

I was shocked. I was hurt. At least, those were the looks I was going for. Doug rolled his eyes.

“You need a woman with you. Good cop, bad cop.”

“Campbell…” He was shaking his head by then. “You’ll be working.” He was triumphant. He’d found an excuse.

“No, no, I’m off tomorrow.” I’m a travel agent. I manage an agency in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village, an area centered along Twenty-first Avenue that still has a neighborhood identity and personality. It borders the Vanderbilt University medical complex, not far from Music Row, Green Hills, and a couple of other college campuses. Students and businesspeople rub shoulders with health-care professionals and music types. A great place to work, but I had the day off. “I can help carry. Surely you can use an extra pair of hands,” I pleaded. “I won’t break anything. I won’t even speak without your permission. How many chances does a person get to see inside Jake Miller’s house?”

I wanted to be able to tell my dad about the interior of Jake Miller’s last home. Jake Miller’s widow, a second or third wife, still lived in the house they’d built with the profits from his biggest hit, “Last Lonesome Train.” Jake might have played a sad guitar, but Hazel Miller played Nashville for all it was worth. She was always there at music-industry awards dinners, smiling vaguely through an alcoholic haze, accepting a plaque and thanking “the people” for keeping Jake’s memory alive—and buying his records and the records of newer stars who kept rerecording his old songs. They not only kept his memory alive; they kept his estate prosperous.

At least, everybody assumed the estate was prosperous. Hazel lived in a mansion behind a high brick wall on Franklin Road. Her gowns dripped rhinestones and sequins. Her cars were huge and gaudy.

“I might not even get inside,” Doug said. “I’m just picking up these paintings for Ken. Six paintings. She bought them but never paid him. I can’t believe he let them out the door without money in his hand, personally. They’re supposed to be expecting me, so they might just have them sitting by the door.”

“Please.”

He sighed. “If I tell you to go sit in the car, you go sit in the car.”

And I knew I had won.

“Absolutely. You’re the boss.”

He didn’t believe it, but I’d worn him down. “Okay,” he finally agreed. “Just don’t gush.”

It wasn’t like I’d ever really caused him harm. Sometimes I’d say the wrong thing around his friends. Sometimes I was a little too honest. How bad a character flaw is that? Bad enough, apparently, to avoid committing to a relationship but not horrible enough for him to avoid me altogether. I crossed my heart.

* * *

It was late afternoon as we drove south on Franklin Road, the sunroof open to let in the sunny and warm, perfect fall day. Doug kept his eyes on the road. I split my attention between the scenery and Doug. Gray-blue eyes, six feet tall, fit from running three days a week. Doug’s brown hair was the only unruly thing about him.

Birds flitted in the trees that reached over the road. It was too late in the year for songbirds, but the mockingbirds aren’t tourists. They stay with us all year, flying in pairs, teasing and flirting from branch to branch, singing songs borrowed from the other birds. Doing covers, I suppose they’d say in the industry, recording their own versions of someone else’s song. My neighbor, Mr. Morgan, had a favorite mockingbird story. He was working construction and waiting for a dump truck to get out of his way. The dump truck made its distinctive beep, beep sound as it backed up. “That truck shifted into forward,” he said, “and drove off, but I kept hearin’ that same beep, beep, beep. I thought somethin’ was wrong with my hearin’, from all the blastin’. I kept hearin’ it, and that truck got farther away, then out of sight. I finally looked around and saw a mockingbird. It was imitatin’ the dump truck. A bird imitatin’ a truck! Durndest thing I ever saw.”

Leaves skittered across the road, pressing up against the fences like eager fans trying to get a glimpse of a star. Nashvillians are generally blasé about their country music stars. You see them in restaurants, on the street, at Target. Your kids play Little League with their kids. You see Tim and Faith at Ensworth games. You may smile and nod so they don’t get insecure, tell them you liked their last song—if it hasn’t been too long since their last song. But a native never gawks. Still, I was excited. I’d spent too many years listening to my daddy play Jake’s songs not to be thrilled at the prospect of being inside that house.

Doug turned off the road and stopped in front of tall iron gates. He pressed a button beside the speaker at his window, and out came a squawk that seemed to contain a question. Doug must have understood, because he responded, “Doug Elliott. I’m from The Mockingbird Gallery. Mrs. Miller is expecting me.”

After a moment of silence, there was another squawk, and the gates began to open. The driveway curved up a gentle slope. The landscaping was elaborate and not exactly seedy, but there was an aura of early neglect. There were weeds in the daylily beds, and the juniper ground cover bordering the drive seemed to have scribbled out of the lines.

“I have a friend who has a theory about the economics of trees,” I said. “His hobby is horticulture, and he thinks that trees determine the property values of neighborhoods. Maples are middle class; oaks and magnolias are upper. What do you think?”

Doug said nothing.

I keep looking for yards that disprove his theory, but this wasn’t one of them. The oaks and magnolias were there instead of the maples that blazed in my neighborhood, plus weeping cherry and discreet ground covers. Someone had put a lot of expense and care into this garden once.

There was a pea-gravel parking area to the right side of the entrance, but Doug stopped in front of the door. “Not as far to carry the paintings,” he explained. I nodded.

At the elaborately carved door, Doug pushed another button. Chimes rang inside the house. We waited. Doug was calm, as always. He’s not impressed by much. I’m not even sure just how impressed he is with me. He doesn’t give much away.

The door remained closed. Doug pressed the button once more, and again we heard chimes but no approaching footsteps.

“If they didn’t want to let us in, they wouldn’t have opened the gate, would they?” I asked.

“I don’t like this,” Doug said. “Ken said she agreed to give them back, but if she’s changed her mind, there’s nothing I can do. Even though she hasn’t paid for them, Ken doesn’t have a lien on them.”

“I thought Ken said he talked to Hazel today,” I said.

“He talked to her two weeks ago. Today he confirmed this appointment with the personal assistant. A man named George Lewis.”

Doug pressed the button once more and looked impatiently at his watch. Then we heard footsteps. A maid opened the door. She seemed a little flustered and out of breath.

“Good afternoon.” Her dark chocolate skin gleamed, and she wore a crisp black uniform topped by a white apron.

“I’m Doug Elliott. May I see Mrs. Miller, please? She’s expecting me. We’re from The Mockingbird Gallery.”

“Oh, yes.” She seemed relieved. “Miz Miller is not available.”

“But I have an appointment. She’s expecting me.”

“Yes, sir, I know. You’re here for the pictures, but you can’t see Miz Miller. She’s not available.” She held the door wide, and we stepped into the entry. It was spacious with rooms opening to the right, left, and rear. A highly polished cherry staircase curved its way upstairs. Matching Chippendale settees upholstered in gold tapestry stood at opposite walls. There was just a little too much gold in the wallpaper, a little too much of everything. It was hard to put a finger on, but it gave me the impression of expensive tackiness. Just because you have money doesn’t mean you have good taste. Maybe that was why Kenneth hadn’t wanted to come. He would take anybody’s money, but he hated to see good art surrounded by poor taste.

Mrs. Miller’s taste in art, though, seemed very good, or else she had listened to a very discriminating advisor. I recognized the work of a nationally known sculptor and a very good—and expensive—local one. I nudged Doug and raised an eyebrow.

“I really don’t want to take the paintings without talking with Mrs. Miller,” he was saying.

“Oh, it’s all right. She knew you was coming. I’ll show you right where they are.”

“Well, thank you. I appreciate your help, but I really need to talk to Mrs. Miller.”

The maid seemed uneasy at Doug’s insistence. “Yes, sir, but she can’t talk right now. She said you was just to take the paintings. He said for me to help you.”

“He?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Lewis. He’s Miz Miller’s personal assistant. He said I was to help you.”

Doug looked stymied. He liked things to be neat, with no loose ends. He followed the rules and was very thorough. It was one of the qualities I counted on him for. I could talk to him—and often did—about a situation, and he would think it through with me. You could watch his clear blue eyes and almost see the gears turning, meshing, setting off other motions. He would look at the question from every possible angle, mentally play out every possible consequence, then tell you what he thought. He had a hard time with spontaneity, but he made up for it in reliability. Doug was a man you could count on.

“We’ll wait,” he announced.

The maid seemed flustered.

“Sir, I don’t want no trouble. Miz Miller said I was to show you the pictures. Can’t you just take them?”

“We’ll wait.”

The maid must have recognized a brick wall when she tried to argue with one, so she said, “Yes, sir,” and left us in the entrance hall.

We sat on the Chippendale settee against the left wall.

I was taking in the details, already rehearsing what I would tell my dad. Doug looked uncomfortable. I smiled reassuringly. He scowled.

We waited.

“I wish I could wander around some,” I said.

Doug looked sideways at me, not responding.

“I mean, Jake Miller! I know he only lived here the last few years of his life, but still, there was some great songwriting in this house.”

Doug still said nothing.

“Wouldn’t you like to see his favorite spot for writing, where he liked to sit and play guitar maybe? Really? Somewhere deep inside?”

“I knew this would happen. I shouldn’t have let you come.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m sitting here behaving. I’m just talking, making conversation, sharing a small part of my dreams, my heart, my soul.”

Doug almost smiled. “This is not going the way it was supposed to. Maybe you’d better hang onto your soul right now. You don’t want to leave anything lying around if we have to make a fast getaway.”

I nodded. “What’s your favorite Jake Miller song?”

He shrugged. “I’m not much of a country-music fan.”

“I know, but everybody knows Jake Miller songs. ‘Last Lonesome Train’? ‘Saturday Night in Town’? ‘Tomorrow Again’?”

Doug shrugged again.

“Is this what you thought it would be like? His house, I mean?”

He looked surprised, then shook his head. “I hadn’t thought anything about it.”

I knew he was telling the truth. No imagination. That’s a blessing sometimes. Doug would never imagine all the crazy things that could possibly go wrong the way I always did.

“I guess I thought it would be a little more … I don’t know … or maybe not so much…” I didn’t know what to say. “It kind of looks like it was decorated thirty years ago and hasn’t been touched since. Except that she was buying art from Ken.”

Doug nodded, but he still didn’t make conversation. He was on task.

After a little more than half an hour, a young man, thirtyish, in jeans, a heavily starched white shirt, boots, and a blazer entered the hall from behind us.

“Sorry you’ve been waiting all this time. Did Estelle tell you to go ahead and take the paintings? I’m George Lewis, Mrs. Miller’s personal assistant.”

“Doug Elliott. This is Campbell Hale.” We all shook hands.

“Nice to meet you both. I’m really sorry that Mrs. Miller won’t be able to see you. She hasn’t been feeling well, and she’s asleep. We really can’t … well, we don’t want to wake her when she’s resting.”

Doug fidgeted, impatient.

“Look, she wants you to pick up the paintings,” Lewis continued. “There’s no question about that. And there’s really no need for you to waste your time and come back another day. I’ll help you get them to your car, okay?”

Doug still looked undecided, but I could see him glancing at the door. He was wavering.

“You’re sure that Mrs. Miller is aware that we were coming today?”

“Oh, yes. She just hasn’t been well.”

“And you’re authorized to turn the paintings over to us? You’ll sign a release?”

“Absolutely. No problem. Do you know the paintings?”

“Yes. I have a list and photographs.”

“Great. I think I know which ones they are, but that will help. I know one’s in the sitting room, but a couple are straight back in the music room. Why don’t you and Miss Hale get those?”

Without waiting for an answer, Lewis headed back in the direction he had come, cowboy bootheels clacking on the marble floor.

Doug and I looked at each other.

“Straight back, the man said,” I offered. “The music room.” I smiled. “I guess that’s this way.”

We walked to the rear of the entrance hall toward a pair of double doors. We stopped, glanced at each other again, and each reached for a handle. We pulled open the doors and gasped. Well, Doug gasped; I screamed.

There in the center of the dark music room, in the light of a single spotlight, stood Jake Miller.

It wasn’t really him, of course. It was an eerily lifelike wax sculpture of Jake looking for all the world as if he were about to sing “Last Lonesome Train.” I almost expected him to tip his hat and say howdy to us. An old, worn Martin guitar waited in a stand near his right hand.

When my heart slowed down and I could breathe again, I looked sideways at Doug. He’s rarely shaken by anything, or at least he rarely shows it. But Jake Miller had taken him by surprise, too. Doug’s eyes were wide as he turned to me.

“Do you suppose there’s another light in here?”

“Wait a second.” I walked over to the statue, stopping about a yard away. My hand went out, almost involuntarily. Up close, the illusion faded, and, as Doug found a light switch, the brightness made the statue appear just that. I decided I preferred the view in the dark, the spotlight blurring the flat and lifeless lines. “They must have given it to Hazel when the wax museum downtown closed.” The sequined suit looked tired, cleaned and pressed but obviously old. A suit Jake Miller had actually worn, singing in a real spotlight. The finish of the guitar was worn through where Jake Miller’s fingers had strummed.

The room was a large one, with heavily draped windows and French doors lining the mansion’s back wall. Jake Miller memorabilia covered the other walls, photographs of Jake with a governor, two presidents, famous Opry stars. There were several of Jake and his daughter Jackie, only a small child when her father died. There were gold records and platinum ones, with brass plaques detailing the years and sales. Other awards, many of which had to have been given after Jake’s death, filled in the gaps. Whenever I looked back at the wax statue, its eyes seemed to follow me around the room. I knew it was just a statue, but it made me feel uneasy

“Look, Doug, it’s the gold record for ‘Last Lonesome Train.’ His whole career is here. This one is ‘The Sound of My Heart Breakin.’ This is great. Wait until I tell my dad.”

“Yes, but where are the paintings?”

I then remembered why we had come—or at least why Doug had come—and scanned the room. On one end was a large, superrealistic painting of the bridge of a guitar. I thought that might be one we were looking for and went over to examine it. I eased the lower edge of the gilt frame out from the wall to look at the back. A gold sticker bore the name and address of the gallery and the trademark mockingbird in flight.

“Here’s one,” I said. Doug was busy examining the few items on the wall that were not relics of Jake’s career. An abstract of Jake and early Opry legends hung on the opposite wall. Doug ignored the painting of Jake on black velvet that hung near the door, but I kind of liked it. He was ignoring the ones he thought couldn’t possibly have come from Kenneth’s gallery. I could imagine a triptych of Jake, Elvis, and the black-velvet Pancho Villa that hung in my favorite Mexican restaurant. Not why we were here, though. “You’re right, this is one, too.”

Doug was lifting the abstract from its hanger. He handed it to me. “He did say there were just two in here, right?” Doug shuffled through his photographs.

“Right. These others don’t have the gallery sticker on the back.”

“Okay. Let’s see what else there is.” Doug took down the guitar-bridge painting and started for the door.

“Wait, Doug. Let me look around another minute.” I walked around the room’s perimeter, peering again at the memorabilia on the walls, and returned to face the wax sculpture. There was a half smile, and the glass eyes looked into a distance beyond the crowds, beyond the beer bottles on the tables. The fingers of its left hand curved as if to make a G chord on the neck of a guitar; the right thumb was poised as if to strum. “It’s sad, isn’t it? His life reduced to this room?”

“I guess. But not too many people these days have their own shrines.”

“True. It just seems as if it’s almost too insistent, as if they’re trying to convince themselves that he really was here, really had a life and was a star, and it all meant something.”

“It’s about money. You create a mystique; it sells better.”

“You have no imagination, you know.”

“That’s what they tell me. I think I had to send in my imagination with the fee before I took the bar exam.”

“And you’re a cynic.”

“Thank you. Let’s go.”

“Okay, but help me remember all this stuff so I can tell my dad. I should have brought my phone in so I could take pictures.”

Doug rolled his eyes. “Fine. Can you get the door?”

Doug and I set the two paintings in the entrance hall. George Lewis came back carrying another, a small floral abstract. “There are three more, right?”

Doug nodded.

“I’ll show you another, Mr. Elliott. Then I’ll get the other two while you take these out to your car.”

Doug followed Lewis, and I was left alone in the entrance hall. This was my chance. With one last look in the direction they had gone, I turned and wandered down the opposite hall. The first room I came to was a sitting room, cool and forbidding, furnished all in beiges. Beyond that, through a wide arch, was a large, formal dining room with hunter-green walls and hunt-print wallpaper above a chair rail. A short hallway turned to the left and I followed it. A single door was at the end of the hall.

I’m not usually this nosy in someone else’s home, but this was Jake Miller’s house. I opened the door into a dim, draped room before I realized it was a bedroom. I had a quick impression of soft greens, floral prints, and an old woman, still and silent on the bed. Hazel’s bedroom? I closed the door quickly and quietly so I wouldn’t wake her and stole back to the entrance hall, scared to death that the housekeeper or, worse, Doug would catch me.

I hadn’t expected to find a bedroom downstairs in this house. As I looked at that staircase, curving so impressively up to what surely were the bedrooms, I wondered if a downstairs room had been converted for Hazel since her health had worsened.

The entrance hall still empty, I slipped back into the music room for one last look at the statue, lit just by the spotlight. I was fascinated by the statue, but I thought it might be a little freaky to live with. I closed the door and went back to sit on my settee.

Doug returned a few minutes later with another painting. At a glance it seemed to be French Impressionist. By the time we had wrapped and loaded the four paintings, Lewis was back with the rest. We were loading those into the car when an old pickup truck skidded to a stop inches from Doug’s car, spraying all of us with gravel. Two mockingbirds scattered in alarm. The pickup had apparently once been sky blue, now faded with age and too many close encounters with other Nashville drivers.

Lewis muttered under his breath as a young man in jeans, a denim jacket, and several earrings jumped from the truck. An empty pierced nostril suggested that this visit didn’t rate the nose ring.

“You can’t keep me out. She has to see me,” he yelled.

“She’s not seeing anybody today,” Lewis told him. “Look, settle down. Let me get ri— uh, help these people finish up, and we’ll talk.”

I could take a hint, so I told Lewis that it had been nice meeting him and got into the car. Doug got the release form out of his briefcase and handed it to Lewis to sign.

The boy fumed. His hair was long, dirty, and scraggly; his cowboy boots were old and scuffed; the wallet in his back pocket was attached by a chain. Lewis was distracted, obviously wanting to be rid of us. He signed the release without reading it.

The boy had started yelling again as Doug slid into the driver’s seat. “I’m not taking this anymore. I have rights here, and you can’t stop me.”

* * *

We took the paintings back to the gallery. Kenneth’s black Mercedes—diesel, of course, because that made it different, more European—was the only car in the lot. The Mockingbird Gallery was closed, but Kenneth was standing in the open door, waiting for us. I held doors and let Kenneth and Doug do the heavy work.

“Thanks, Doug,” Kenneth said. “I’m glad to have them back. Did she give you a hard time?”

“We never saw her. The maid and the personal assistant, Lewis, said she was resting. Lewis signed a release, but I’d feel better about it if I’d talked to her.”

“George Lewis?”

“Yes.”

Ken nodded. “You didn’t break and enter, did you? No felonies were committed?”

Doug didn’t laugh.

While they hoisted in the last of the paintings, I leaned against my hand on Ken’s Mercedes hood, but jumped away. It was hot. Radiant heat, I guessed. The afternoon sun was fading, but most of the day had been hot for October and there was little shade in the lot. This had been one of the hottest summers in decades with a near-record stretch of days with highs over ninety.

“Thanks, guys,” Kenneth said. “I’d take you to dinner, but I’ve got to dash home and pick up Carey and the kids. The kids are in a program at school tonight, but your dinner’s on me, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” Doug assured him. “You’re paying for dinner, all right. I’ll send you a bill tomorrow.”

Kenneth grimaced, then forced a grin and waved as he got into his Mercedes. The heavy engine roared. I realized he hadn’t spoken a word directly to me.

Nevertheless, dinner was delicious. We went to Maggiano’s, my choice. It was late by the time we were seated, and I was hungry. “Let’s have an appetizer while we wait.” Doug grinned. “Ken would want us to.” Doug ordered veal Parmesan; I had linguine with an Alfredo sauce that defied description. Doug nodded to a few acquaintances: a judge and a couple of state senators. The state legislature was in session.

I expected Doug to run for office sometime. When I asked him about it, he’d always shrug, but I knew he’d considered it. He’d been active in at least a couple of recent campaigns, working for candidates I couldn’t in good conscience vote for. It was a shame, really. He was such a good man, but when it came to politics, we could never agree. I’d learned to avoid the whole subject. When he finally did run for office, I just hoped it wasn’t in my district, so I wouldn’t have to vote against him.

“Those paintings just didn’t seem to fit in that house,” I said. “You know I’m a fan of black velvet, but even I wouldn’t hang Elvis anywhere near those paintings we picked up. I don’t get it.”

“She probably only had the black-velvet painting because it was of Jake.” Doug shrugged. “Memorabilia. Ken’s known her for a long time. I’m not sure how they met, but I guess she took his advice about art. He wouldn’t have given her decorating advice, though. People have strange tastes.”

“I guess.”

“Besides, she probably had her house decorated years ago, when there was plenty of money. There hasn’t been plenty of money for a long time.”

“There was money enough for some very expensive art.”

“She never paid for it,” Doug pointed out. “That’s why Ken sent me to pick up the paintings.”

“True,” I agreed. “They seemed out of place.”

“Maybe that’s why she decided not to keep them. Maybe she just decided she didn’t want them. And I don’t blame her. Some of that stuff … How can they call it art if you can’t even tell what it is?”

“If you just want a picture, you can use a camera. Art is about color and space,” I insisted, “about feeling.…”

We argued about modern and postmodern art until the waiter brought our entrees. I was distracted then because the Alfredo sauce was the best I’d ever tasted.

The first time I met Doug was the day his divorce became final. He’d stopped in at the Hillsboro Village–area travel agency that I manage on his way back to his office from the courthouse. He was looking for escape, and that’s mostly what I sell. He wasn’t looking for a place to meet women; he just wanted to get away, put his life in perspective. It’s a principle of mine never to make snap judgments about mistreated, vulnerable men and their horrid ex-wives, but his pain was real. I could see it.

I personally think there’s no better place than a beach to put your life in perspective, except maybe on a boat. There’s something cleansing in God’s endless washing of the beach. Every morning it’s fresh, and every morning it’s there. I like the salty smell and the feel of sand on my bare feet and the sounds of the ocean, the boat halyards and the gulls. I can’t go too long without feeling like Melville’s Ishmael in Moby-Dick: “growing grim about the mouth” and deciding it’s “high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” I like the seafood, too, of course.

So I told Doug about my favorite beach, a little town outside of Destin on the Florida panhandle. It’s a carefully planned resort town, with pastel houses like a postmodern interpretation of a New England fishing village. There are widow’s walks and cupolas, screened-in porches and lazy fans. The restaurants are good; there’s deep-sea fishing; and it’s out of the way.

Describing the town to Doug made me want to go back; it was another gray February day in Nashville, and I was feeling a little drizzly in my own soul. It’s a short flight from Nashville to the nearest airport, Panama City, or you can drive it in less than a day, if you want. I found Doug a decent airfare, made reservations with a well-recommended charter fishing guide, and booked him there for a week.

When he returned, he called to thank me and asked me to dinner. Something connected. I had a feeling of gears finally sliding into place. Something about us fit. But real life is complicated. I don’t know if Doug’s fear of getting too close came from the divorce or contributed to it, but we seemed stuck in some awkward forward-backward dance.

After dinner, we cuddled up on the couch at my house on the Cumberland River to watch television when the ten o’clock news came on. I remember thinking that things were going too well, that it must be time for one of Doug’s disappearing acts. Whenever our relationship seems to be moving somewhere, whenever we seem to be approaching some small sense of commitment, Doug disappears for a while. I tried not to think about it. I’d made coffee, and we were sitting there, comfortable and relaxed. Then the lead story got our attention.

“Hazel Miller, widow of country legend Jake Miller, was found dead this evening in her home on Franklin Road. We go live to Dan Hansen at the scene.”

“Police are investigating the death today of Hazel Miller, widow of country-music legend Jake Miller. Mrs. Miller’s body was discovered this evening at her home here on Franklin Road.” The young reporter gestured past the yellow police tape to the shockingly familiar front door. I’d just been there. “She was apparently found by members of the household staff.” There was film of George Lewis talking to police on the front steps.

“Police are not commenting on the investigation. While the death may have been from natural causes, they say nothing has been ruled out at this point, including the possibility of foul play.”

I turned to Doug. “What are we going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we were there! Our fingerprints are all over. And we saw that boy having a fit at the entrance as we were leaving.”

“What’s that got to do with anything? We don’t know anything. We didn’t see Hazel Miller. We don’t know what happened or when or how. We don’t have anything to tell.”

“But Doug, we were right there. We could even be suspects.”

“Suspects for what? For all we know—or anybody knows right now—she died in her sleep.”

“Doug! I saw her.”

“You saw who?”

“I saw Hazel. At least, I might have seen her.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you were gone with that Lewis guy. I went down the other hall, and I saw her.”

“She was in the hallway?”

“No…”

“Where was she? More to the point, where were you?”

“I … just kind of opened a door, and there she was.”

“Did she speak to you?”

“No. Well, she didn’t see me.”

“Didn’t see you?”

“She was in bed. Asleep. I thought.” Could I have done something then? I thought she was asleep and didn’t want to disturb her, but what if I had gone for help? Could someone have resuscitated her then?

“Let me get this straight. You went snooping in her bedroom?”

“I didn’t know it was her bedroom. It didn’t seem like someplace you’d find a bedroom. I just thought I’d look around a little. Nobody was around. I wasn’t going to bother anything.”

“Campbell! You were in somebody’s home! And you were sneaking around in it!”

“Well, I’m sorry! I was quiet and shut the door really quick. I didn’t disturb her.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Was she alive?”

“Oh, Doug! I don’t know. She was lying in the bed. I thought she was asleep. It was just a second. And I don’t know for sure it was even her. I couldn’t see that well. The room was dark. What should we do?”

“There’s nothing for us to do. You don’t want to get messed up in something like this. If anybody decides to question us, then just tell the truth, answer their questions. But don’t go looking for trouble.”

“You’re right. I just don’t want to be hauled away for obstructing justice.”

“I don’t see how it could be a big deal. She died in her sleep. Besides, you know a good lawyer,” Doug said. “Don’t forget they have to let you make a phone call.”

“Yes, but what if they already have you?”

“Could be a problem.” He dismissed my concern. “Look, I’ve got to be in court in the morning. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I’ll let you know what the gossip is.”

Then I called my best friend MaryNell.


Copyright © 2017 by Peggy O’Neal Peden