I was unsure if I should show Cotter what was in the box, but I guess I had to since he’d found the box and it was the whole reason for us going into the house in the first place. That, and Mr. Sook wanted us to find it. When I first opened it, there was a fat overstuffed envelope on top and on its side was written FOR THE BOY and underneath that, Cotter’s name. The envelope was filled with one hundred dollar bills, at least several thousand.
I lifted the envelope to find a stack of photocopied checks. The checks were made out to Mr. Arvin Sook and signed by Anna Mae Faulk on what appeared to be the family account based on the name and address at the top. And the checks were not your everyday personal checkbook size. They were the larger kind for businesses that usually came in a ledger. There were two checks for every month for at least a year or two. Mr. Sook was either employed by the Faulk’s or had been employed to do something for them. Each check was a hefty pay for just farm work, and if that was indeed what it was for, why would he be saving it for Cotter?
“Cotter, did you know Mr. Sook prior to today?” I asked.
“No, I’ve never met him,” he said as we hurried back down the hall and out of the house.
I was relieved to get back outside and breathe fresh air. The dusty house, the odor, the dead body itself, and the thought of Mr. Sook’s ghost watching us were enough to make anyone nauseous. I was trying to think fast about what to say to Cotter concerning the contents of the cigar box, but I didn’t have to worry for long about coming up with an excuse. Multiple sirens were blaring in the distance. The cops and an ambulance were near.
“Cotter, let’s hide this in my car before the police get here. We’ll talk about it later.”
He agreed so I tucked it under the driver’s seat. Then, we waited in the back yard away from the door. The cop car killed his siren when he pulled into the driveway but left his lights flashing. He pulled off into the front yard to make room for the ambulance which wasn’t far behind. The EMT’s and one cop hurried inside with their gear while another cop approached us.
Cotter stood there entranced by all the activity and bright lights as I introduced myself to the cop and explained to him how we got here. I told him we had not been inside, so we couldn’t confirm if the man inside was actually Mr. Sook or if he was even dead. We didn’t have to. The cop from inside came out with Mr. Sook’s wallet and confirmed his identity. I also heard him call for the coroner on his radio.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” A voice called out from behind us.
Anna Mae and Nanny were running across the field. Anna Mae was holding up the hem of her skirt and appeared to be playing hop scotch through the field, no doubt avoiding piles of cow plop. Nanny followed close behind. The scene made me think of some Englishmen chasing a Croquet ball across the lawn while the butler accompanied him with a silver tray full of canapés.
“Cotter, what are you doing here?” Anna Mae panted when she reached us. Nanny stood by silent.
“Excuse me, Miss. Who are you?” the cop interrupted.
“I’m sorry, officer. Anna Mae Faulk. I am Mr. Sook’s neighbor. I’m the one who called 911,” she said, offering her hand. I half expected him to bow and kiss it. I think Anna Mae did too. Instead, he reached for it and gave it a quick single shake. “Cotter here is my brother and I’m not sure what he’s doing here. Is everything alright?”
“I’m afraid your neighbor, Mr. Sook, is dead,” the cop said.
“I didn’t say you could bring Cotter with you,” Anna Mae turned and said to me, ignoring what the cop had just told her.
“Mrs. Faulk, I didn’t intend for Cotter to be here,” I said.
“What do you mean you didn’t intend for him to be here? You should have asked for my permission!” Her voice got louder with each word.
“I hid in the car. I wanted to come,” Cotter said out loud to no one in particular.
Anna Mae knelt down to look eye to eye with Cotter. “Oh I see, so you are the one who should be in trouble here, mister.”
“Mrs. Faulk, pardon me for saying so but I don’t think anyone should be in trouble here. Cotter hasn’t done anything wrong,” I said.
She raised back up to look at me and said in a low gritty voice, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
I could tell by the look in her eyes there was some other reason for her anger. Maybe she already knew that Mr. Sook was dead, although she didn’t put up much of a fuss about me coming here to check on him. Maybe she knew about the money. Or maybe, just maybe, she knew about Cotter’s special ability and was afraid he’d talk to Mr. Sook. I knew all of this was quite a stretch, and I still had the money and the checks to deal with on top of Mrs. Faulk’s erratic behavior.
The cop asked if he could question Cotter alone for a few minutes. Mrs. Faulk agreed so they stepped over to the barn, staying within our sight. Mrs. Faulk and I stood there and watched, never saying a word to each other. I really needed to just focus on my whole reason for actually coming here which was Cotter. The situation with Mr. Sook wasn’t making that easy. So, instead of interviewing Mrs. Faulk, and possibly upsetting her further in the process, I kept quiet during our time standing there alone together.
After the cop had finished with Cotter, he pulled me aside and asked me to recap the events of the day. I told him how I knew Cotter and about his mother in Loxley. I told him about bringing Cotter here to be with his sister’s family. I told him about the cow on the lawn, purposely leaving out the part about Holly talking to Cotter, and then I explained about us coming here to check on Mr. Sook after Anna Mae got upset about the cow being on her lawn. I told him I had knocked on the door and then Cotter had opened it. We’d spotted the body and sent Nanny to call for help. Satisfied that our stories matched up, he made a few notes and then dismissed us from the scene. I offered the copy my business card in case he had any questions later.
“Mrs. Faulk, if you don’t mind, may I drive Cotter back to the house? Getting back to his situation, the whole reason I’m here, I need to have just a few minutes alone to ask him some questions before I leave him in your care,” I said. I somehow managed the kindest voice possible despite her attitude toward me earlier. I certainly wasn’t a charmer, but it must have worked because she agreed. Instead of standing there and wooing the cop with her Southern hospitality, she and Nanny both walked back across the field to 70 Willow Street.
In the car, I told Cotter I didn’t think it was a great idea to show him what was in the box just yet. He wasn’t too happy about it because of course, that was the first thing he wanted to see. I told him we only had a few minutes together so my questions for him were more important. First, I needed to know if he really wanted to stay with his sister and her family. Being his liaison, I had the authority to take him away from here.
“What other choice do I have?” he asked.
I stayed silent and just looked at him, raising my eyebrows. He already knew the answer to that.
“Going back to that teen home?”
I nodded yes.
“I’ll stay here.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be okay.”
“I think your sister is mad about you sneaking to Mr. Sook’s. It’s probably not a good idea for me to continue with the interview today. So, if you are okay with staying there, I’ll get a hotel room for the night and come back tomorrow.”
“Okay. Then can I see what’s in the box?”
“I’ll think about it,” I said with a smirk. I smiled to let him know I was joking.
He fell quiet, looking out the window. He appeared to be deep in thought. We were almost back to his sister’s house.
“Do you get along well with your cousins?” I asked, hoping he might shed some light on them before I met them.
“Yeah, Lea and Junior are okay. Frankie and I like to play together,” he said, still looking out the window.
“It’s sad that the poor little guy is blind, but your sister said he manages well.”
“He does very well. It’s easier when you are born that way.”
“I could tell he was glad you were here. He likes you.”
“We have a lot in common.”
“Oh?” I knew exactly what he was going to say.
Cotter turned to look at me and read my mind. “Frankie may be blind, but he can see dead people too.”
And I was afraid he’d say something like that.
“Does your sister know about this?” I asked.
“She knows about me, but we have never talked about it. She refuses to believe it. Frankie told me once that he could see them too, despite not actually being able to see with his eyes. I told him not to tell his mother. As far as I know, he’s kept it to himself.”
I felt sorry for such a young boy keeping a secret all to himself in a house like that. And especially a secret like that one. If anything, maybe he’d benefit from Cotter being there. I didn’t know anything about ghosts, but I guess I was about to learn. For now, I needed to learn everything I could about Arvin Sook and Joseph Faulk and fast.
We drove back up the cobblestone driveway and parked in the same spot as before. Anna Mae was waiting on the porch for us. Frankie was gone. I got Cotter’s suitcase out of the trunk of the car and sat it on the porch.
I spoke first, not giving Mrs. Faulk a chance. “I think we’ve had enough excitement for today. I thought I’d get a hotel room in town and return tomorrow to finish up the interview if that is okay with you.”
“I think that would be quite appropriate,” Mrs. Faulk said, and what and odd way of saying it. “How about lunch tomorrow at 11? Nanny’s cucumber sandwiches and lemonade are to die for.”
I hope they weren’t what had killed Mr. Sook.
“That sounds great. I assume it’s okay if Cotter stays here?” I asked.
“Of course, it is. Cotter, run inside and say hello to Lea and Junior.”
Cotter turned to me, waiting for approval. I nodded. He stepped toward the door and then I remembered something. “Cotter, before I forget. Here’s my business card.” I pulled another card from my pocket and handed it to him and he tucked it into his shirt pocket. “See you tomorrow. Have a good night. Call my cell if you need anything.”
He smiled and gave a nod and then picked up his suitcase and went inside.
“There’s only one hotel in town and it’s nothing special. You should consider the Skully’s Landing Bed and Breakfast,” Mrs. Faulk said, looking down at me from the porch.
“I’m sure the hotel will suffice,” I said.
“Oh, nonsense. I know the curator of the B&B well. I’ll call ahead and reserve a room for you. They’ll be glad to give me a special one night rate for a friend.”
So, we were friends now? If it wasn’t for Cotter, I really didn’t care if I ever saw Mrs. Faulk again in my life. She gave me directions to Skully’s Landing and then shook my hand. I thanked her for her hospitality, meaning for it to really sound sarcastic but it didn’t quite come out that way. She grinned with pleasure, but it was her grin that looked more sarcastic than what I had said, and then she turned and disappeared behind the screen door. I got back into my car and drove into town.