Skully’s Landing was on the Southern side of Monroeville, several miles outside the city where the paved roads disappeared and became gravel again. The few concrete buildings of downtown slowly shrank into small town businesses clustered around the old court house, and then trailer parks, and then farms eventually replaced by thick groves of trees along each side of the narrow winding roads. Several miles out, an old rusty sign came up along the side of the road indicating the river and also advertising Skully’s Landing B&. The second B was missing. I hoped it didn’t mean they weren’t serving breakfast anymore.
I turned off in the direction of the sign onto a wide grassy path that didn’t even resemble a road anymore. It was just two wide tire tracks cut into the grass leading off into the swamp. The cypress trees in the distance were quite wide at the bottom, a sure sign the water was usually high in this area. Even now I could hear water under my tires as if I was squeezing a wet sponge. I slowed down, hoping there would soon be a clearing up ahead or at least higher ground. There was. The thick marsh was cut back to reveal a quaint gingerbread-style home nestled under the trees. It had fish scale shingles in the gables and wagon wheel spindles across the front of the porch. Wide lattice work concealed the bottom of the house, which was several feet above the flood plane. The arched great windows and deep slanted roof gave it a Bates Motel look, especially out here so far off the road and in the middle of the swamp. If a tall skinny caretaker named Norman answered the door, I was going to check out the hotel in town after all.
I opened the car door and was greeted by the proverbial sounds of crickets chirping overhead in the trees, bull frogs croaking in the reeds, and the loud hollow hammering of an unseen woodpecker. A mourning dove cooed from somewhere in the distance, followed by the hoot of an owl. The thrashing of something off in the deep water, no doubt a crocodile, muted everything for a few seconds and then the symphony of creatures started up again. Luckily, no banjo playing toothless kids were sitting on the porch.
I approached the tall narrow stairs leading up to the front door and noticed the house was not as quaint as at first glance. The green lead paint was faded and peeling. The bottom step was rotted, along with several other boards here and there, and the porch was buried in dead leaves and dust. An old wicker chair with a busted seat sat by the front door. Based on its condition, it now served as a scratching post for either several cats or a really large bear. Despite the architectural charms, Skully’s Landing B&B was a far cry from the grandeur of 70 Willow Street.
I raised my hand but the front door creaked open before I could knock. The rusty hinges squealed with the sounds of witchery. A small frail woman who looked like a cross between Dickens’ Miss Havisham and a California Raisin stood before me. She was dressed in a pale lacy dress that with her large cottony beehive of hair made her appear to be wrapped in a ball of silken spider webs.
“Greetings and welcome to Skully’s Landing.” Her moth eaten voice was just as decrepit as she was. If she had a crystal ball in one hand, a broom in the other, and a black cat at her feet, I would have turned around and gone back to my car. “I’ve been expecting you,” she continued.
“I believe Mrs. Anna Mae Faulk called to reserve a room for me,” I said.
“Yes. Yes, she did,” the old woman said, standing to the side and welcoming me in.
The inside of the house was a complete opposite from the outside. The floor and the walls were dark wood, but had a rich Colorado mountain cabin shine to them. A fire flickered in the limestone fireplace with a giant moose head hanging over it. The chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling was crafted from deer antlers. The smell of an apple pie baking or a similar scented candle lingered in the air with touches of cinnamon and ginger.
“Do you accept credit card?” I asked.
“Mrs. Faulk has already covered the expense,” the lady said.
“Oh! Okay. That was quite nice of her.”
“I’m Ms. Coletta Skully,” she said, offering her hand for me to shake. It was like shaking the hand of a skeleton.
I asked if there were any other guests. Of course, there wasn’t. I waited for a jagged burst of lightening to crack the sky and the Phantom to start playing organ music because I was about to spend the night in a haunted house.
Ms. Skully showed me to my room upstairs. Every stair groaned and chirred as we went up. I was glad Cotter wasn’t here because I’m sure this place was full of ghosts, but I think I would have somehow been more relieved if he was here and able to see them for me.
The upstairs hallway was lined with framed photographs of various people. Some were single pale and smileless portraits and others were posed groups of people in front of this very house in its better days. There were also photos of men posing with their old cars, another of a man in front of the fireplace downstairs, and some of small children in their Sunday best. I recognized Ms. Skully in a few of them in her younger years. Her skin was porcelain white and smooth, but her hair was still the large unmistakable bun, just darker in color. She aged in the photographs as they turned from sepia to black and white and then a few at the end in color, surrounded by her husband and children. Here husband was a tall skinny man with a saggy face and overalls. Grandchildren multiplied and grew around her. The lean man in denim who she held hands with eventually disappeared from the frames.
Ms. Skully took a skeleton key from her pocket and unlocked the first door on the left. She swung the door open and turned on the light, and then she handed the key to me. Holding out her hand to invite me inside the room, she smiled and graciously awaited for my approval. Much of the room was taken up by a large canopy bed with thick green velvet drapes tied back at the corners with gold tasseled rope. A small roll top mahogany desk and chair sat in the corner. A tall dresser was on the opposite wall with a gold framed mirror hanging above it. A spindly rocking chair sat in one corner. It smelled pine scented clean. There were two open doors inside, one was a small closet and the other led into an equally small bathroom. A window beside the desk looked out at the wide lazy river. I pulled back the featherweight curtains to have a look.
“Is that the Alabama River?” I asked.
“Yes it is, dear,” the old woman said from behind me. “Do you like the room?”
“Yes, it’s very lovely,” I said turning away from the window to acknowledge her.
“Would you like lunch, dear?” she asked.
“No, thank you. I need to run an errand back in town. I’ll pick up lunch there.”
“Yes, dinner will be fine. Thank you.”
I’m sure Ms. Skully was quite harmless despite the dark ominous look of her bed and breakfast, but I didn’t feel safe bringing in the cigar box of money still in my car. I couldn’t legally open a savings account for Cotter without Mrs. Faulk’s permission, which would mean revealing the money to her and having to explain where we got it. And since she’d signed the checks to Mr. Sook, that certainly wasn’t a smart idea. I had decided to rent a lock box at a local bank to stash it in for now. Going back into town would also give me a chance to further explore any contents of the box we might have missed, count the money, and put the checks in order to develop some sort of timeline if necessary.
After saying good-bye to Ms. Skully, I drove back into downtown and parked in front of the courthouse. I had noticed a local branch of my bank in town earlier and stopped there to rent the lock box. Providing my identification and checking account number made the process quicker. Within ten minutes of filling out the application, the bank manager escorted me into the vault and handed me a key. He instructed me to push a button that would buzz for assistance when I was done, and then he closed the steeled barred gate to lock me in.
I had put the cigar box in my briefcase before coming in. After the manager left, I put the briefcase up on the waist high counter and opened it. I took the cigar box out and then took a deep breath before opening it. Emptying the box, I took out the envelope of cash and the stack of checks and laid them on the counter in front of me. First, I put the checks in order by date. There were twenty-three checks in all going back one year, two checks for each month. Each was dated on the 1st and 21st. The only one missing to complete the year was the second check for this month. The 21st was three days ago. I wondered if that check was missing because maybe Mr. Sook was killed on the 21st and had been dead for three days. It was just a thought but it seemed plausible.
Each check was written for $800. Next, I counted the cash. I separated it into stacks representing each check. It all totaled $18,400 exactly. It was more than I had originally thought was here at first glance, but every dollar from every check was here. Had there been a check three days ago it would have totaled $19,200. It made me wonder if there was actually supposed to be a twenty-fifth check rounding the total sum to $20,000.
I straightened the stacks of money to put back in the envelope and then made some notes on a legal pad I kept in my briefcase. I wanted to hurry and get the money back in the cigar box before anyone walked by the door. In my haste, I bumped the edge of the box and knocked it off the counter. It landed upside down with its lid open and I heard something metal clinking against the floor. I reached down and lifted the box up, letting the lid hang open. A thin piece of wood, the exact size of the bottom of the box, was left lying on the floor with a skeleton key and a folded piece of notebook paper lying on top of it. The cigar box had a false bottom that had been knocked lose when the box hit the floor.
I picked up the key and the note and put them in my briefcase. I put the piece of wood back into the cigar box and pushed it down to the bottom. It fit very snug and I never would have noticed it had it not been knocked lose. I put the copies of the checks and the envelope of money into the cigar box and then searched for my new lock box. It was a small drawer near the bottom, numbered 60. The cigar box fit perfectly inside. After locking it up, I added the key to my key ring and then pushed the buzzer. An attendant came almost immediately to let me out of the vault.
There was a small local drugstore just a few doors down from the bank. I stopped inside to pick up a few toiletries since I had not packed anything and had not intended to be staying overnight. Several customers smiled at me as I passed them in the aisles and the cashier was overly friendly. At first, I wondered if Mrs. Faulk had spread the news of my visit further than Ms. Skully at the B&B. This was a small town after all where gossip abounded. But being a small town, I knew it was just the residents’ way. People were always friendlier in the little places that usually only had one red light. Monroeville was definitely one of those dots on the map.
There was a Mom and Pop thrift store on the opposite side of the courthouse. Antique and junk stores always caught my eye, so I stopped in there just to have a look around. I’m glad I did because I found some clothes in my size that looked brand new. I never even look at clothes in these places, but I was in need of at least one new outfit for tomorrow. I didn’t want to face Mrs. Faulk in the same clothes I had on today. The bridge of her nose was indeed long and I’m sure she looked down it at everyone, not just me. I never cared what others thought about me, but being seen in the same outfit two days in a row was certainly a Southern fashion faux pas. And with a price of three dollars for a top and four dollar for pants, I couldn’t resist. I walked out with three new outfits.
Mom and Pop were both standing behind the counter when I was ready to check out. Their warm smiles and small talk put me in a good mood along with my bargain finds. I asked them for a recommendation of a good place to grab lunch. They suggested Jack’s Diner on the corner. So, Jack’s it was. I put my “new” clothes in the trunk of my car along with my briefcase, but first I slipped Mr. Sook’s note and key from the cigar box into my pocket to examine over lunch, which was a BLT and sweet iced tea also suggested by Mom and Pop.