“Please, child. Don’t be alarmed. Come and sit,” Madam Miller said to me with a warm smile.
I stood there, hesitating. My mind raced through every horrible thought imaginable. I would turn and run out, but the door was probably locked. I would rattle the knob or claw at the wood, but no one would hear me and the door wouldn’t budge. My agonizing screams of terror would be silenced before any drug store customer down below suspected anything. The gypsy woman and the angry ghost would be my demise. I was doomed.
“It’s alright. I promise. Please?” she said, extending an arm and twiddling her fingers, motioning me to come closer and sit. The bangle bracelets on her wrist jangled and clinked.
I walked forward, taking each step slowly. I sat down in the arm chair across from her but remained on edge with my back straight. I looked at her and waited. She looked back, as if expecting me to say something. She raised her eyebrows and smiled. Finally, she spoke, breaking the long silence between us.
“Did you bring the note?” she asked.
“Oh! Yes! Yes, I did.” I snapped out of my trance and pulled it from my pocket. Luckily, I had taken it and the key out of my briefcase before coming into the drug store. A small sense of relief came over me when I handed it to her, the same feeling I got after I had locked the cigar box money safely away at the bank.
“Very good,” she said, nodding. She gave it a quick look and then sat it down on the table next to the crystal ball she’d been holding. “Was there anything else with it?”
“Yes, a key.”
“Ahhh, yes! The key.”
I held it up, but did not offer it to her. If she needed it I was going to let her reach for it, but she didn’t. Instead, she stood up and walked over to the nightstand by the bed. She opened the bottom drawer and removed a small box that was shaped like a pirate’s treasure chest. I had seen keepsake and jewelry boxes like it before, lined with bright red velvet. As a child, I had one myself with a mirror inside the lid and a small ballerina figure that popped up and twirled around as the box played music when you opened it.
Holding the box away from her with both hands as if it were a hot casserole right from the oven, she returned to the sofa and sat back down. She extended her arms offering the chest to me. She had a cunning look of great satisfaction on her face, as if relieved herself to be rid of the box passing it on to me now. I almost asked her if the key would open it, but I already knew it would.
I reached for it, taking it from her. I looked at her face. She nodded and gave that quaint smile again, an attempt at reassuring me that it was okay. The box was very light weight. I put my knees together and sat the treasure chest on my lap. I didn’t know if I was supposed to open it here, but then Madam Miller spoke.
“Go ahead and open it,” she said in a whisper.
I slowly pushed the key into the lock and turned it. The lid gave with a click and I lifted it open. I was right about the red velvet lining. More money lay neatly bundled inside, rubber banded into five neat stacks. I looked back at Madam Miller.
“It’s $21,600 if you wish to count it,” she said. “I’m assuming you already have the rest since you found the note and the key?”
“Yes, $18,400. That’s $40,000 total,” I said, doing the math quickly in my head.
“Madam Miller, do you know what this money was for?”
“Yes, I do, and I’m going to tell you. But first, I need you to confirm who you are and how you came about that key and the note.”
“You mean Mr. Sook hasn’t already told you?” I was pretty sure he had, and she confirmed that.
“He has. I never would have asked for the note or given you that box if he hadn’t told me, dear.”
“Mr. Sook told you it was okay? He told you to give this to me?”
“Yes, dear, he did.”
“Is he still here? In the room with us?”
“Yes,” she said with content. “Yes, he is here.”
“Where?” I asked.
“He’s standing across the room by the kitchen table over there,” she said, giving a nod in that direction.
I almost turned to look, but flinched my head back before turning all the way, knowing I wouldn’t be able to see him standing there. But it was instinct to want to look. Madam Miller let out a gentle laugh at my reaction.
“It’s okay. You can’t see him, but he’s not going to hurt you. He told me you are here because of the boy.”
“Mrs. Faulk’s young brother,” she added.
I explained to Madam Miller who I was and how I was responsible for delivering Cotter to his sister’s home, but for some reason I felt like she already knew all of this since she knew Mr. Sook was dead. He must have told her how we found the money. She remained courteous though and allowed me to speak.
I even told her about Holly the cow. I figured she’d probably heard or seen things that were even stranger than a talking cow. After I told her about finding Mr. Sook and him telling Cotter about where to find the money, she finally spoke up.
“We never expected anyone to come so soon. Mr. Sook was right, I guess,” she said. Her eyes looked down at the floor, deep in thought.
“Right about what?” I asked.
“His death. He was afraid they would kill him if he backed out.”
“Mr. Sook was killed?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said plainly.
“Does he know who did it?”
“Not exactly. It was someone Mr. Faulk hired. He’s sure of that.”
“Shouldn’t we go to the police then?” I asked.
“And tell them what? That Mr. Sook’s ghost told us that Mr. Faulk had him killed? Do you think they would believe you? Besides, the Faulk family has ties to the law enforcement and in the courts too. You’d be treading dark and dangerous waters if you went to the law and started pointing a finger at Joseph Faulk for anything.”
“But what about all this money?” I said.
“Mr. Sook worked for the Faulk’s. He lived on their property. So the law wouldn’t see these payments as being anything out of the ordinary. Larger sums than usual, yes, but the Faulk’s would just say it was for extra work or something. And then the law would take the money from you, and that’s the last thing Mr. Sook wants to happen to it,” she warned.
“How do, or, how did you know Mr. Sook?”
Madam Miller paused and looked at the floor again. She drew in a quick breath and held it. When she looked back up at me a fat tear fell from her left eye onto her cheek. She wiped it away and then let out a deep exhale with her mouth puckered as if she was trying to whistle.
“We were lovers,” she said in a hushed tone, trying desperately to hold back more tears. “Had been for several years now, I suppose.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her hand. She grabbed mine and gave it a loving squeeze.
After giving her a few moments, I spoke. “They paid him to do something bad, didn’t they?”
With her eyes closed, she nodded yes.
“Was it to hurt Cotter?”
She shook her head no, still trying to compose herself and keep from crying.
“Was it to hurt his mother?”
She looked at me with eyes wide for a moment and then gently nodded yes.
She swallowed hard to clear her throat before speaking. “They told him it was over land. Some corporation wanted to buy up the land where her cabin is and develop it for a shopping mall and condos, but she wouldn’t sell. They apparently made her a pretty lucrative offer. Faulk found out about it, but he knew she left the cabin to Cotter instead of her daughter. But with Cotter being so young, Faulk knew the estate would fall into the hands of his wife if something happened to their mother.
“So he hired Mr. Sook to take her out of the picture, but Mr. Sook quickly backed out. In fact, I was the one who talked him out of it. He didn’t know that Lillie Mae had a young son. When he found out, he just couldn’t go through with it. Mr. Sook himself grew up without a momma, so he just couldn’t take some other boy’s mom away. He wasn’t going to tell Faulk he was out until the front money had been paid in full.
We were going to run away with it, him, me, and my daughter. We were going to leave Monroeville and never look back. But Sook was afraid Faulk was catching on. That’s why he split up the money. Faulk never knew about Sook and me.”
“You said it was front money?” I asked.
“Yes, the forty thousand. He was going to get an additional ten thousand after he killed her.”
I could tell that Madam Miller’s confession caused her a bit of pain. Mr. Sook had obviously had a change of heart, but it had still cost him his life. And his death had broken Madam Miller’s heart instead.
“I’m afraid someone else must have followed through,” I said.
“Lillie Mae Paumans, Cotter’s mother, went missing several weeks ago. They found her body in the Blackwater River nine days later.” I had failed to tell her about Cotter’s mother earlier when explaining the real reason for me having to bring Cotter to his sister’s home in the first place.
“Oh dear, that poor boy. I’m so sorry.”
“Do you think that Joseph Faulk did it?”
Madam Miller gazed across the room as if listening to someone. She was. I realized Mr. Sook was telling her something.
“He says that Joseph Faulk wouldn’t have killed Cotter’s mom himself. Too risky.”
“But Mrs. Faulk said he’d gone there on a hunting trip this week and to take care of Mrs. Paumans’ cabin.”
“Oh, he was definitely close by, but he didn’t do it himself.”
I was curious why Mr. Sook had split up the money and left part of it with Madam Miller. She explained that he had wanted her to hold it for several years. If no one ever came to claim it, she could take it out of safe keeping and use it as she needed.
“But why hide half of it in the house? If the Faulks owned the property, they’d surely find it first, and if they found the note, they’d come looking for you,” I said.
“True, but I think Mr. Sook knew Cotter would eventually end up living with his sister anyway. The plans to kill his mother would happen with or without Mr. Sook’s involvement. He would have made himself known to the boy somehow and led him to the money either way, and that’s just what he did.”
“That was very nice of him to do that. Since he trusted you with half of it, he obviously cared very much about you,” I said to her, holding her hand and patting it gently as she wept.
“Yes, he did. But the money belongs to Cotter. It always has. That’s why Mr. Sook held onto it.”
“Mr. Sook did the right thing,” I said.
I told her about how Cotter didn’t even know about the money yet. I had not told him what was in the box, but I suppose I would have to tell him tomorrow when I returned to 70 Willow Street.
“You said Cotter could see Mr. Sook? After he was dead?” she asked.
“Yes, and he talked to the cow. His own father’s ghost supposedly rode to Monroeville with us,” I said. “It’s been an interesting day. That’s for sure.”
“I don’t know nothing about talking to animals, but that boy is a medium, for sure.”
“Yes, I’ve had some dealings with a few during my paranormal investigations. Very serious stuff.”
“But you are a psychic, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. I can see the future and predict things, but I can’t see or talk to ghosts. That’s why I started investigating them. But I want to learn more.”
“But what about Mr. Sook? You see and talk to him.”
“That’s different, honey. I can see and hear him because he loved me. Sook always said he’d come back to me.”
“That’s very sweet of him,” I said.
She looked at me and nodded, giving me that warm smile again. Then, she looked across the room and winked at him.