by Dennis Palumbo
This is the fifth story in the Smart Guys mystery series written by Dennis Palumbo. There are nine Smart Guys mysteries–watch for more here in KRL in the future and check out the first one, The Smart Guys Marching Society, the second, the third Mayhem In Mayberry, and the fourth one, right here in KRL.
“Do any of you guys believe in ghosts?” Fred asked, nursing his second Jack Daniels on the rocks. He stood at the small wet-bar in a corner of my game room.
“Define your terms,” Mark said. “You mean actual ghosts? Apparitions of the dead that haunt the living? Like Casper. Or Keith Richards?”
Fred just shook his head. Cretins.
“There’s also Ibsen’s play, Ghosts,” Bill said cheerily. “I did three weeks in Chicago in that sucker. Got huge laughs, too. Unintentional, but huge.”
Irritated, Fred turned to me. “A little help?”
“Are we talking about the after-life, something like that?”
Fred came over and took a seat on the couch. He looked somberly at the drink in his hand. “I’m talking about the dead, living on as ghosts. Spirits.”
I was struck by both his earnest tone, and the fact that our upright, cool-headed representative of the legal profession had, within minutes of arriving for our weekly Smart Guys meeting, gone straight for the hard liquor.
Meanwhile, Mark had made himself comfortable on my new Laz-E-Boy, showing us the bottoms of his scuffed Florsheims. “I read that somebody asked Samuel Beckett what he thought the after-life would be like. He said, ‘We’ll just sit around talking about the good old days, when we wished we were dead.’”
Bill laughed and spread eggplant appetizer on a sesame cracker. He’d done a deli run before showing up for this afternoon’s meeting, and had chosen a slightly more exotic mix of snacks than our usual fare. I myself was on my second crab wonton with apricot glaze. Not bad.
Isaac came in from the kitchen then, noting the sizeable buffet spread out on the coffee table. “My compliments, Bill,” he said, settling into his familiar corner armchair. He balanced a mug of Darjeeling tea on his knee. “We needed some culinary variety.”
“My pleasure,” Bill said. “That’ll be eighteen-fifty from each of you guys.”
“Do you take checks?” Mark asked.
“With two forms of ID and valid driver’s license,” Bill answered. “Can’t be too careful nowadays.” For some reason, Fred wasn’t amused by this dazzling display of wit. He just sat back on my couch, stroked his trim beard in a slow, deliberate manner, and looked off.
It was a typical late-spring Sunday afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, which means it was untypically cool and overcast. The TV weather people call it “June gloom,” a time when the marine layer gets trapped by competing air pressure fronts (or something), and we get a few weeks of damp fog worthy of Victorian London–before shifting into the glaring sun and 100-plus degree temperatures of summer in Los Angeles. Anyway, given the high-end chow arrayed before us, we did more eating than talking for the next half-hour, though a few topical items did slip briefly into and out of the conversation–mostly politics or the latest celebrity divorce circus–garden-variety stuff. Somehow, finally, we ended up debating the cultural ramifications of Internet dating–admittedly a dicey topic for a bunch of middle-aged, married guys–though it was clear that Fred’s mind was still elsewhere.
Not that the rest of us were firing on our usual eight cylinders, either. Maybe it was the weather. In fact, Isaac had actually started to doze, his empty mug resting on the side table next to a well-thumbed collection of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories. For a few moments, we just found ourselves listening to his gentle, oddly comforting snore, at which point, Fred abruptly got to his feet. “Look, guys, I’m gonna have to cut it short today. I’m meeting my mother and uncle in a few minutes.”
“C’mon, man,” I said. “Obviously you have something on your mind. Want to talk about it?”
Fred considered this. “No. Well, yeah…but I sort of don’t know how. It’s personal.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” said Bill. “They got pills for that now. Not that I’ve ever needed ‘em, but–”
Fred wisely ignored him. “It’s just that it involves my family,” he said, after a pause. “We’re all kind of shook up about it.”
“Anything we can help you with?”
“Maybe. Hell, I suppose that’s not a bad idea,” Fred gave a rueful grin, “as long as you all promise not to think my whole family’s nuts.”
“Don’t worry,” Bill said, “we take that as a given. They raised your tight ass, didn’t they?”
“Cool it, Bill.” Mark took off his glasses and looked at Fred. “You said you were meeting your mother and your uncle. Why not bring ’em here?”
“Bring my family to a Smart Guys meeting?”
“Why not?” I said. “It wouldn’t be the first time we had guests.”
“We’re talking about my mother here,” Fred said.
Bill shrugged. “So we’ll watch our language.”
After a moment, Fred nodded. “Okay, I’ll call and ask them to come over.”
Mark stirred. “What’s this all about, anyway? I mean, can you give us a hint?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Fred answered. “How about a visual aid?”
With that, he took something out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to Mark.
“It’s a train whistle,” Fred explained. “It belonged to my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was a stationmaster for the Union Pacific. He died last week.”
“I’m sorry, Fred,” Mark said, “my condolences.”
“Mine, too,” I said. “But why didn’t you mention it?”
“You know me. I don’t like to talk much about personal things. I guess I have a lawyer’s reticence.”
Bill gave a cough. “Look, man, I was just messing with you before…I didn’t realize–”
“Hey, I know. Don’t worry about it.” Then Fred’s face softened. “He was a great guy, my Grandpa Joe. When I was a kid, he’d sit me on his knee and tell me amazing stories about his days on the railroad. Soon after he retired, he gave me his train whistle. He’d used that old thing for over twenty-five years, and he knew I’d always loved it.”
“And you’ve kept it ever since?” I said.
He nodded. “Every day, in one pocket or another. I guess I’ve always felt it brought me luck.”
“Funny,” Mark said, “you never struck me as the sentimental type.”
Fred smiled. “You never knew my grandfather.” With that, he went outside for some privacy to call his family. Meanwhile, we handed the old, brass whistle around.
When it reached Bill, he put it to his lips and blew. “My God!” Mark winced, but it was too late. The whistle made a sharp, high, one-note sound, instantly familiar from dozens of old movies featuring elegant train platforms and huge steam locomotives. As the sound faded, the silence in its wake was tinged with a sense of…well, I can only call it melancholy.
“See, I blew it the right way,” Bill was saying, rolling the whistle between his fingers. “None of that tweet-tweet crap. One nice long note, like in Murder on the Orient Express. Man, now there was a train!”
“Give me that!” Mark snatched it from Bill’s hand.
“Sure does remind you of the past,” I said, “when travel was more adventurous. Exciting.”
Isaac made a kind of chortling noise, eyes still closed. “Believe me, train travel had as many negatives as positives. Smoke, soot, cramped conditions. Not to mention the way the porters and baggage-handlers were treated.” He shifted in his seat, as though to rouse himself awake again. “It’s funny. You young people are always so quick to romanticize the world before you were born.”
Bill smiled. “See, that’s why I love having Isaac around. To him, we’re still young.”
As Isaac blinked awake, Mark handed him the whistle. Isaac was studying it appreciatively when Fred came back into the room. “They’re on their way,” he said. “They agree that running the story by some impartial listeners might help.” He sat down and reached for his whiskey glass. He drained it in a gulp.
“Take it easy, man,” Mark said.
“You do realize you’re self-medicating,” I told Fred, feeling a bit lame as I did so.
“Damn right I am,” he replied. “What would you do if your dead grandfather’s ghost suddenly showed up?”
A half hour later, Fred was making introductions. “Guys, this is my mother, Missus–”
“Just call me Ruthie,” his mother said. “No need to be formal at a time like this.”
I liked Fred’s mother instantly. She looked to be in her mid-70s, small and thick-waisted, with a cloud of white hair that seemed lacquered in place. Her clothes were appropriately dark and somber, and her face was etched with the tracks of recent–and frequent–tears, but her smile was warm and friendly. Her companion was a taller, more distinguished-looking man, perhaps a few years her junior. He had a broad, intelligent face and the firm handshake of someone confident about his effect on people. He seemed okay, too.
“This is my uncle,” Fred said. “My Mom’s brother, R. David Hastings. We all just call him Uncle Dave.”
His uncle laughed. “When your first name’s Rutherford, being called anything else is a blessing. Our parents had a strange sense of humor when it came to naming their kids. It’s the only thing I ever held against them.” Uncle Dave gave me a knowing look. “Ought to be a nice change for you, eh? My nephew here says you’re a therapist. I was a city planner, so I know what it’s like to listen to people complain all day long–though usually it was about their streets, not their parents. Thank God.”
Before I could reply, Fred’s mother spoke up. “Our father was a great man, in his simple way. Gentle and wise, with such a clear view of right and wrong. Unshakeable.” She smiled. “So naturally, when I brought home a rascal like Freddie’s father–”
“Mom, please,” Fred said. “And Dad wasn’t a rascal.”
Ruthie’s eyes suddenly held a playful glint. “In all the ways that made me happy, he sure as hell was…”
Fred groaned. “Okay, Mom. T-M-I. Too Much Information. Man, I knew I was gonna regret this.”
Bill laughed. “Hey, let your mother talk…Freddie.”
Fred gave him what can only be described as a death stare, but Bill just ignored him and offered Ruthie a seat. I did the same for Uncle Dave. I also offered him something substantial to drink, but he shook his head. “Never touch the stuff,” he said.
As Uncle Dave found a place on the couch, he nodded at Isaac. “I must say, it’s nice to see another man my age in the room. I don’t have to feel like such an old fart.”
“Happy to oblige.” Isaac lifted his empty cup. “I just had a cup of tea. I could make you some, if you like.”
“No, thanks. I’m strictly a coffee man, my only vice, sorry to say.” Then, just as quickly, the hearty mood he’d seemed bent on maintaining faded. His shoulders slumped a little. “First of all,” he said quietly, “thanks for making us feel so welcome. Truthfully, though, I’m not exactly sure how you fellas can help. But Freddie says you’ve sorted out problems for people before and at this point…” He looked down at his hands, as though he expected to find them shaking. “At this point, I’ll take whatever advice I can get.”
Ruthie sniffed loudly. “I gave you my advice, Dave. We should hire a good medium. Someone who could help us…” Here she hesitated. “Well, I mean, if it was Daddy…”
Fred shook his head. “Mom, that’s impossible and you know it.”
“Do I? You know I’ve felt his presence since the day after he passed on. Remember, I’m the one who’s been in the old house, sorting things. I’m the one who…”
She sniffed again, and reached into her purse for a handkerchief. “I’m just saying…I felt him there. Felt him watching me.”
Uncle Dave frowned. “But you said yourself, you’d sat down to rest and dozed off. Maybe you just…dreamed it. You’ve–we’ve–all been so upset since Dad died, it’s no wonder you imagined seeing him…”
“Then how do you explain what you saw last night? And what we all heard. How do you explain that?”
Her brother sighed heavily. “I–I can’t.”
Fred offered his mother a glass of white wine and sat near her on a chair. “Mom, I think it would help if we went over the whole thing again…from the beginning.”
“Good idea,” Mark agreed.
Fred turned to the rest of us. “My grandparents lived in the same old house for fifty years. Even when Grandma Rose died ten years ago, Grandpa Joe refused to move.”
“And God knows we tried,” Ruthie said. “We asked him to move in with Freddie’s father and me, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. When we suggested a retirement home–and believe me, we found a really nice place–he just blew up. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen him angry.”
Uncle Dave grinned. “And you should see that old dump. Frankly, calling it a ‘fixer-upper’ is an insult to fixer-uppers. Needs new wiring, plumbing; the works. But Dad was determined to stay. He wanted to leave it to one of his children, as a legacy of sorts. The problem was–” He and Ruthie exchanged a guilty look.
“The problem was,” Ruthie finished for him, “neither Dave nor I wanted it. Still don’t.”
She sighed heavily. “Poor Dad. He always said he wanted to die in that house and not in some big hospital, with strange doctors and nurses. He didn’t get his wish.”
Uncle Dave quietly took her hand.
After a thick moment of silence, Fred continued. “Anyway, a few days after Grandpa Joe died, we heard from Walter Hicks, our family lawyer. He needed to meet with Mom, Uncle Dave and me in his office right away. When we got there, Walter had some files on his desk. He told us
Grandpa Joe called him to his hospital bed only days before his death. He told Walter that he’d made a new Will, written by hand, and that he’d put it in the wall safe in the old house.”
“A new Will?” Mark said.
Fred nodded. “Walter argued with him, of course and insisted that this new will should have been drawn up with his help, as was the old one. But apparently, Grandpa just laughed and accused Walter of implying that he wasn’t of sound mind, but Walter knew damn well he was. Plus, Grandpa Joe said he’d had the new Will witnessed by his gardener before putting it in the wall safe, so it was a legal last Will and Testament.
“Anyway, Grandpa Joe was the only one who had the combination to the safe, which he wrote out then and there in the hospital and gave to Walter for his files. Then Grandpa instructed Walter to gather the three of us together in the old house exactly one week after his death, which would make it Saturday–yesterday. Then Walter was to open the safe and read the contents of this new Will.”
“As you can imagine,” Uncle Dave said, “this came as a shock to all of us. So much so that poor Ruthie fainted, right there in Walter’s office.”
Ruthie clucked her tongue. “There’s no need to tell them that, Dave. Honestly, sometimes…”
“Well, Mom, it’s true,” Fred said. He turned back to the rest of us. “Mom got dizzy, so I helped her to the sofa in the adjoining room, while Walter ran to get some water.”
“Such a fuss,” Ruthie said, scowling.
“We were worried about you, dear,” Uncle Dave said.
“We were more worried the next day,” Fred went on, “when Mom went to the old house alone to start sorting through Dad’s stuff.”
“I know what I saw,” she said stiffly, “and I wasn’t dreaming.”
She looked past her brother and son to find Isaac’s kind face. “Let me see, we went to Walter’s office on Wednesday, so the next day was Thursday. I wanted to get started on some of Dad’s things in the old house, personal items that would mean something to his family. Trust me,
I know how relatives can be after a loved one dies. Who gets the embroidered tablecloth? Who gets Dad’s old tea kettle? Who gets my mother’s French silverware? Just stupid things, I know, but they’re keepsakes. Mementos of my mother and father’s life together.”
“We understand,” I said.
“Anyway, after an hour of sorting and wrapping, I got kind of tired. So I went into the living room, where it was dark, and sat down on Dad’s faded old armchair to rest.”
Her jaw set then, as though in anticipation of our reaction. “And, yes, I guess I was nodding off a bit…it was kind of gloomy in there, like I said, with the curtains drawn and everything, but I swear I saw, out of the corner of my eye…it was Dad, alive! But sort of…faded. He was just…drifting…past the doorway, in the hall…”
“Wow,” Bill said quietly.
“Then I–I forced myself all the way awake and tried to get to my feet, but I get dizzy nowadays when I stand up too quickly, and…” She sat back on the couch. “Well, as you can probably guess, by the time I got to the hallway, Dad was gone. There was no sign of anyone.”
Ruthie took a gulp of wine. “So if Freddie and Dave and the rest of you want to say I’m a crazy old lady, or that I dreamed the whole thing up, then fine. Think what you want, but I didn’t just see Dad…I felt him. I’m telling you, his presence is still in that house.” She turned to her brother. “And after what happened last night, I don’t know how you can say otherwise.”
“What happened last night?” Mark asked.
Uncle Dave looked abashed. “Well, here’s the funny part. I mean, I know it isn’t possible…it can’t be…but I’m afraid I saw the old man myself last night. I saw my father in the hallway. His…ghost, I suppose.”
It was then that I first noticed the misting rain outside the game room windows. Pushed by a late afternoon wind, rivulets of moisture dappled the glass and gently shook the magnolia trees in my backyard, plus, I swear the temperature dropped ten degrees in the room.
“Just what we need,” Bill said. “Atmosphere.”
Uncle Dave smiled weakly. “At times like this, I wish I were a drinking man.”
“Can we get back to last night?” Mark said sharply.
Fred took a breath. “Well, as arranged with Walter, we all planned to meet at Grandpa Joe’s place at eight. I picked up Mom, and Walter and Uncle Dave each drove there separately. Uncle Dave arrived first. Mom and I saw him knocking on the front door of the house as we drove up…”
“I’d just gotten there,” Uncle Dave said, “but I realized I’d misplaced my key. Anyway, I thought maybe somebody else had already arrived–Walter, perhaps–so I tried knocking. Finally, Fred and Ruthie pulled up.”
“Both Mom and I had our keys,” Fred continued, “but we decided to wait on the front porch for Walter. He showed up a few minutes later, so we all went in together. It was pretty creepy in there, I have to admit. Nobody’d lived there since Grandpa had been taken to the hospital six weeks ago. Not that he’d exactly been Martha Stewart before that. Dust, cobwebs in every corner, old furniture, gas stove. Tell them, Mom.”
Ruthie nodded. “It was just Dad’s way. Never fussed over domestic things, especially since Mom died…” She ‘teared up,’ and dabbed her eyes again. “It used to break my heart, the thought of him rambling around that dilapidated house all by himself these past few years.”
“Anyway,” Fred said, “we flipped on some lights and went down the hallway to the living room. The hallway goes right down the middle of the first floor, opening onto the kitchen, linen closet and guest bath, so we had to walk past all these open doors to reach the living room. At the back wall, behind a standing lamp that I think is a Tiffany knock-off was the wall safe.”
“Did the family know about this safe?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Ruthie. “Dad had it put in years ago for his important papers, Mom’s few good pieces of jewelry–that kind of thing.”
“I’m surprised Walter Hicks didn’t suggest a safe deposit box,” Mark said.
“He did,” Fred answered. “So did I. But Grandpa Joe didn’t trust banks much. He’d lived through the Depression, after all. Hell, it took years to convince him to keep a checking and savings account.”
“Anything strange about the place that struck you at the time?” I asked him.
“No, I don’t think so. Some of the lamps had burned-out bulbs, but the overheads worked fine.”
“I probably should have changed those bulbs when I was there Thursday,” Ruthie admitted, “but I was so busy just sorting things out. Or at least, I thought I’d been busy. When we went down the hallway last night, I glanced into the kitchen and noticed that some of the cooking things I thought I’d wrapped were still out.”
Fred gave her a warm smile. “Mom, that just means you were more exhausted and stressed-out than you realized. It was so soon after Grandpa Joe’s death.”
“We told her all that wrapping and organizing could wait till later,” Uncle Dave said, gently touching her shoulder, “but my sister has a mind of her own.”
Ruthie folded her thin arms. “Well, I can’t help that. All us Hastings women are strong-willed, you know.”
Bill cleared his throat impatiently.
Fred took the hint and went on: “As I was saying, we all assembled in the living room. Walter took out the combination from some files he brought along and opened the wall safe. Inside was all the stuff Mom mentioned, plus a single business envelope with the words ‘My new Will’ written in ink on the front. We all recognized Grandpa Joe’s handwriting immediately. Anyway, Walter was just about to open the envelope when–”
“When suddenly all the lights went out!” Ruth’s voice was like a gasp. “The whole house–plunged into darkness!”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“Mom’s being a bit melodramatic,” Fred said. “The power went out and it was pretty dark, all right, but some ambient light from outside still came through the windows.”
“Dark is dark,” Ruthie said. “What would you call it, Mr. Yale Law School?”
“Exceedingly dim,” Fred replied. “I just figured there had been some power outage in the neighborhood. Or maybe–” He hesitated, looking from his mother to his uncle, then back at the rest of us. “But then,” he went on quietly, “not thirty seconds after the lights went out, we heard it.”
“Heard what?” Bill said.
“Grandpa Joe’s whistle. His train whistle–from somewhere down the hall.”
“What?” Mark sat upright in the Laz-E-Boy.
“No way,” said Bill, wide-eyed.
“We all heard it,” Uncle Dave said. “Dad’s whistle. That’s when Ruthie started crying out, ‘It’s Daddy! He’s here! He’s with us in this house!’”
“I knew Daddy’s spirit was still in that house,” she said forcefully. “I’d seen him two days before, and now he’d appeared again, blowing his whistle…”
Mark turned to Fred, but before he could say anything the latter held up his hands. “I know what you’re going to say, Mark. But I had the whistle with me the whole time. When we heard the sound, I instantly reached into my pocket…and there it was, same as always. Nobody had taken it. Which means nobody was at the other end of the hall, blowing it.”
“Then who?” Bill said. “And how?”
“That’s what I intended to find out,” Uncle Dave said firmly. “I’m afraid I became quite irritated with Ruthie. “It can’t be Dad,’ I said to her. “I’ll prove it!” So before anyone could stop me, I went back down that blasted hallway, feeling my way, and–”
“I yelled at him to stop,” Ruthie said. “I told him not to do it–”
“So did I,” said Fred, “but he went anyway. In a second Uncle Dave had disappeared down the hallway…it was so dark I couldn’t see him at all. And still that mournful whistle…” He let out a long breath. “Truth is, I was pretty rattled. But then I started in the same direction myself, when all of a sudden, the whistle faded. Just faded away…like some ghostly sound in the distance.” He paused, then looked at Uncle Dave, who sat staring down at his hands again. His face looked less animated than before; you could see the wrinkles, the strain at the edge of his eyes.
“I know that what I’m about to say is ludicrous,” he began, “I don’t even believe it myself, but I saw Dad. I went down to the end of the hall, and…well…there he was. Standing there, not even looking at me. He had that damned whistle at his lips and he was blowing it. A mournful sound, like Freddie said. And then…and then, he just vanished.” He looked up at us. “I mean, I guess that’s what he did. One moment he appeared to be there, and the next he wasn’t. God knows, I was almost in a faint myself… and then Freddie was at my side, asking me what happened.
Frankly, I was afraid to tell him. Believe me, since that moment, I’ve gone back and forth with myself about what I saw–or didn’t see. It had to have been my imagination…with the lights out, in that wretched house, our being there to hear Dad’s new Will…I couldn’t have seen him. And yet–”
“Then how do you explain Grandpa Joe’s train whistle?” Fred asked him. “Mom and I both heard it, too.”
Uncle Dave didn’t answer.
“Well,” Bill said, “what happened then?”
“I helped lead Uncle Dave back to the living room,” said Fred, “where Walter was holding Mom. He was afraid she might faint again. Then I made my way to the back of the house and managed to find the fuse box. As I’d suspected, a breaker switch had flipped. I guess we’d overloaded the old circuits when we came in and started turning on all the lights. I flipped it back and returned to the living room.”
“Of course, with the lights on, everything just looked normal again,” Uncle Dave said. “If anything, all that did was make me feel even more foolish.”
“What about the Will?” Mark asked.
“Walter still held it, unopened, in his hand,” Fred said. “As you can imagine, nobody wanted to stay in that house any longer than we had to, so Walter slit it open and took out a single piece of paper. It was handwritten, as Grandpa Joe had explained, and merely said that all the terms of the previous Will were to stay the same, except for the disposition of the old house. According to this new Will, Grandpa Joe wrote that he was leaving the house to Uncle Dave.”
“Which was kind of a surprise,” Ruthie said. “Dave and I just assumed Dad would leave it to both of us.”
“And that was how it should have been.” Uncle Dave shook his head. “You have to understand, neither Ruthie nor I care for that house. Sure, it has many wonderful memories, but the cost of fixing it up, maintaining it…”
“That’s all this new document said?” Mark asked. “That the house was to go to Dave?”
“My father was a simple man, like I told you,” Ruthie said. “He just wrote, ‘I, Joseph Clarence Hastings, leave the house to Rutherford.’”
“Pretty simple, all right,” I said.
“So, guys,” said Fred, back to stroking his beard, “any thoughts about our strange story? Or should we do what Mom says and just go find a good medium?”
“I don’t know if we should be so dismissive about all this,” Bill said, with a surprising seriousness. “For one thing, I’ve never played a theater that wasn’t haunted, or at least, supposed to be.”
Mark nodded, almost reluctantly. “I gotta admit, I’ve seen plenty of places that felt haunted to me. Certain war zones, burned out buildings, old refugee camps.” His voice grew quiet. “Some places I’ve been…it’s like there’s an aura, a sense of some past violence or tragedy…as if the really weird thing would be if they weren’t haunted…”
I watched his eyes grow somber behind his dark-framed glasses. Though he never talked about his previous life as a covert operative, I often believed I could sense when its shadow passed over him; like now.
“So you boys agree with me?” Ruthie said at last. “You think it’s possible that–”
Her voice caught in her throat–as, suddenly, all the lights went out.
“What the–!” somebody shouted. I think it was Bill.
“Oh dear God!” Ruthie gasped.
I could hear the others getting to their feet, bumping into furniture. With the drizzle and gloom shrouding the windows, my game room was now as dark as night. “Nobody move!” I said. “I’ll get a flashlight.” Suddenly, I heard a high, sharp sound wafting through the room–single long note, rising in pitch.
“Daddy!!” It was Ruthie again, nearly hysterical.
“Get a light in here!” Mark’s clear voice pierced the darkness. “Where’s that flashlight?!”
Then, as unexpectedly as before, the lights in the room blazed on again. We all stood, in various awe-struck poses, blinking in the brightness.
“What the hell’s going on?” Bill snapped. “And where’s that damned whistle coming from–?”
“From me,” said a voice from the kitchen.
It was Isaac. At the same moment I recognized his voice, I also became aware that he wasn’t in the room. In fact, I couldn’t swear he’d been sitting with us for some time, even before the lights had gone out, but there he was now, standing in the kitchen doorway, with a steaming tea kettle in his hand. We all watched, in a kind of unthinking trance, as the kettle’s high whistle faded to a whisper, and then was silent.
Fred, fumbling in his pockets, drew out his grandfather’s train whistle. “But I thought…”
Isaac nodded, stepping into the room. He put the still-warm kettle on the side table. “You thought that high-pitched sound you just heard was from your Grandpa Joe’s whistle,” Isaac said, “just like you did last night, when the lights went out in the old house.”
“What do you mean, Isaac?” Fred said.
“I mean,” Isaac said, settling into his armchair, “that you and your mother were the victims of a trick.”
He looked at me. “Similar to the one I just did, after I flipped the breaker switch in your fuse box. By the way, I hope that was okay? I wanted to illustrate a point.”
“Uh…sure,” I said. “Mi casa su casa. I guess.”
“What’s this all about?” Uncle Dave said. Isaac ignored him. Instead, he turned to Ruthie with a sad smile. “I’m sorry, my dear. As much as you want to believe it was your father’s ghost, contacting you from beyond last night, I’m afraid it wasn’t.”
Uncle Dave sputtered. “Now see here, I saw the old man last night–”
“I saw Daddy, too,” Ruthie insisted. “Remember? On Thursday afternoon.”
Isaac shook his head. “You said yourself, Ruthie, you were too tired to keep working, and that you sat down for a rest. I believe you did, in fact, fall asleep, and dreamt that he appeared to you.”
Uncle Dave frowned. “That still doesn’t explain what happened last night. What about my story?”
“That’s even easier,” Isaac replied. “You lied.”
“How dare you!” Uncle Dave turned to Ruthie. “We don’t have to stay and listen to this.”
Fred gave him a sharp look. “You know, Uncle Dave, I’d prefer if you did. I want to hear what Isaac has to say.”
“So do I,” said Bill.
Uncle Dave looked as though he were about to speak, but didn’t. He merely sat back and folded his arms. After a pause, Isaac began. “I may get some of the details wrong, but I do have a theory about the chain of events you three described.” He glanced over at Uncle Dave. “Feel free to jump in whenever I get it wrong.”
“Go to hell,” said Uncle Dave, eyes narrowing.
Unruffled, Isaac continued. “Just before he took ill, I think Grandpa Joe somehow found out that his son Dave wanted to sell the old house–despite his clear desire that it be kept in the family. So Grandpa Joe drew up an amendment to his Will, a single piece of paper, on which he wrote by hand that he wanted the house to go to Ruth. I’m sure he believed that she, unlike Dave, would honor his wishes and keep possession of the house.”
“Pure supposition,” Uncle Dave said, with a tight smile. “Besides, haven’t I made clear my lack of interest in the old place?”
“You’ve sure worked hard to give that impression,” Isaac agreed, “but let’s move on. Uncle Dave, of course, has no idea that Grandpa Joe had become suspicious, and certainly no idea that he’d changed his Will. Not until Walter Hicks informs Dave, Ruthie and Fred in his office a few days after the funeral. Dave guesses instantly that a change in the Will is probably bad news for him. But then, he gets a lucky break.”
As Isaac spoke, a picture began forming in my own mind. “Ruthie suddenly faints…”
“Exactly. When Ruthie faints, what happens? Fred helps her onto the couch in an adjoining room and Walter Hicks goes out for some water. This leaves Uncle Dave alone in Walter’s office for just a few moments…enough time to go to the desk and find the combination to the wall safe that Grandpa Joe had written out for the lawyer. Dave memorizes it, and then comes to Ruthie’s side, with no one the wiser.”
I saw Ruthie cut her eyes over at her brother, as though struggling to believe what she was hearing. Isaac sat forward, hands on his knees. “The next part of the plan required that Dave arrive at the old house some time before the others. Using his key, which of course he hadn’t misplaced, he goes into the house, opens the safe and takes out the envelope containing the new Will.”
“Hold on, Isaac,” Fred said. “I saw that envelope when Walter took it out of the safe. It was still sealed, but you’re implying Dave somehow tampered with it…”
“He did,” Isaac said, “by use of one of the oldest tricks in the book. I believe Dave took the envelope into the kitchen and unwrapped Grandpa Joe’s old tea kettle…” He turned to Ruthie. “Remember how confused you were when you went back to the house last night? You mentioned the ‘cooking things.’ You said you thought you’d wrapped them on Thursday afternoon, and yet when you glanced into the kitchen some of them were unwrapped. That suggested to me that one of those items might be the old tea kettle you’d alluded to earlier.”
“This is outrageous,” Uncle Dave announced, though by this point no one was paying him much attention.
“As I say, it’s an old trick. Dave unwrapped the tea kettle, filled it with tap water and set it to boiling. Then all he had to do was carefully hold the envelope over the whistling spout and steam it open. I can imagine his anger when he took out the piece of paper and saw, just as he feared, that Grandpa Joe had left the house to Ruth.”
“I–I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” said Ruthie.
“That’s because it’s utter nonsense,” Uncle Dave said.
Fred took a step toward him. “I want you to keep quiet now, Uncle Dave. Do you understand?” Something in Fred’s tone cowed the older man. He made a big show of squaring his shoulders indignantly, but he didn’t say anything.
“If I may continue,” Isaac said, smiling. “Here’s where Dave got his second lucky break. Grandpa Joe had foolishly handwritten his new Will, whose last sentence originally read ‘I, Joseph Clarence Hastings, leave the house to Ruth.’ It was easy, then, for Uncle Dave to add with his own pen the remaining letters necessary for the last word in the sentence to now read ‘Rutherford.’ I’m sure Dave brought with him last night a number of pens of different-colored inks, to make sure it was a close enough match to that used by Grandpa Joe.”
I glanced over at Uncle Dave, who sat perfectly still.
“After that,” Isaac went on, “Dave poured the water from the kettle into the sink and put it back on the stove. Then all he had to do was put the forged Will back in the envelope, seal it again, perhaps with a glue stick, also brought along for that purpose and return the envelope to the wall safe.”
“But wait a minute,” Fred said. “When Mom and I pulled up to the house, Dave hadn’t even gone in yet. He was on the front porch, knocking at the door.”
“Yes,” said Isaac. “I can only wonder how long he’d been standing there, knocking, waiting for you to arrive so that it would appear he’d not yet been inside the house. Again, for anyone who reads mystery stories as avidly as I, it’s a familiar trick: you leave the scene of the crime, shut the door, and then stand there knocking on it as though you’d been outside the whole time.” Isaac shrugged. “All Dave had to say when you finally showed up was that he’d lost his key. Why in heaven’s name would you doubt him?”
“Yeah,” Fred murmured. “Good old Uncle Dave.”
“That brings us to the moment when you were all assembled in the living room,” Isaac said, “and Walter Hicks takes out the will from the safe. Suddenly, the lights go out–”
“I had nothing to do with that,” Uncle Dave said.
“For once, you’re telling the truth. No, you didn’t. As Fred later discovered, a breaker switch had flipped. But you weren’t worried. After all, this sudden glitch wouldn’t affect your plan, but something else might…” Isaac leaned back, putting his fingertips together. “Because here, at last, is where Dave’s luck ran out. My guess is, when he’d poured the water out of the tea kettle, he hadn’t totally emptied it. He’d inadvertently left a small amount of water at the bottom of the kettle, which he’d put back on the burner which he’d also neglected to turn off. So that now, minutes later, as you all were about to hear the contents of the new Will, the kettle finally came to a boil again and began to whistle. A long, single high note, sounding exactly like–”
“Grandpa Joe’s train whistle!” Fred said.
“Poor Uncle Dave,” said Isaac. “He couldn’t let Fred or Walter Hicks go investigate the source of the sound. They’d find a whistling tea kettle, one that Ruthie had thought she’d wrapped and put away. It might cause them to start asking questions.”
“I think you’re giving me too much credit,” Fred said wryly. “I probably would’ve thought Uncle Dave had just boiled some water for tea.”
“Really? But when did he do that? He was outside the house, claiming to have lost his key, when you and your mother arrived. As far as you, Ruthie and Walter Hicks were concerned, Dave hadn’t been in the house before that.”
Isaac smiled. “Besides, as Dave himself said earlier, he doesn’t drink tea, only coffee.”
“Wait, I got a question,” Bill chimed in. “If the electricity had gone out, how come the stove was still hot enough to keep the kettle whistling?”
“It was a gas stove, remember?” Isaac replied.
“Oh,” Bill said. “Right. Never mind.”
“Where was I?” Isaac paused. “Oh, yeah. Dave couldn’t let either Fred or Walter go down that dark hallway to the kitchen. But then he had a brainstorm off of Ruthie’s reaction to the whistle, and her belief that it was another manifestation of her father’s ghost, Dave suddenly announced that he would prove her wrong. He would go investigate. So he went bravely off, before anyone could stop him, down the hallway, toward the kitchen…”
By this point, Ruthie was openly staring at her brother, but he wasn’t returning her look. “Dave knew he’d be swallowed up by the darkness,” Isaac continued, “but still he had to act quickly. He went into the kitchen, took the kettle off the burner, and then went back out into the hall. He’d supposedly just seen Grandpa Joe’s ghost when a concerned Fred caught up with him. But, unfortunately, the apparition had conveniently vanished a moment before.” Isaac smiled. “Now here’s the beauty part. Dave not only claims to have seen the ghost of Grandpa Joe, but he’s the most vocal in discounting that fact. ‘I must’ve been seeing things,’ he says. ‘This can’t have happened,’ and so on. Nothing makes a person more convincing than when he himself seems reluctant to be convinced.”
We all fell silent. “Well, I’m convinced,” Bill said finally. Then, to my surprise, Ruthie turned suddenly and slapped her brother across the face. Hard.
“You bastard,” she said bitterly. “If you want the old house so much, you can have it. But I’ll never forgive you for this.”
R. David Hastings just stared. “The house? You think I want that dilapidated piece of crap? It’s not the house, you silly bitch. It’s the land.”
“Boy, you have an inflated view of the real estate market,” Fred said, “especially in that area.”
“No, my dear nephew,” Dave said coldly, “it’s you who are misinformed. Thanks to certain friends of mine down at City Hall, I happen to know they’re planning to run a freeway spur through that part of town. Exactly where the old house is standing, in fact. That land will soon be worth a fortune.”
“Not to you,” Mark said. “You’re toast, Rutherford.”
Now it was Uncle Dave’s turn to look smug. “Not at all. None of what this old fool claims can be proved. None of it! Even if I did pretend to see a ghost, is that a crime?”
“No,” replied Fred, “but tampering with a legal document is. And Grandpa Joe’s new Will, though hand-written, is still legit. He had it witnessed, remember?”
“So.” Mark picked up the thread. “A forensics lab will be able to ID the glue you put on the envelope, as well as the traces of the original envelope sealant removed by the steam. Then there’s your handwriting, though I’m sure you knew your father’s handwriting well enough to match it, I’ll bet handwriting experts will be able to detect subtle differences between the letters making up the name ‘Ruth’ and those comprising the remaining letters.”
“Not to mention the inks,” Fred added. “Even if you think you matched the ink color, forensic experts can isolate chemical differences in types and brands of ink.”
Bill shook his head. “Man, CSI has really raised the bar on this kinda stuff, eh?”
“At the very least,” I said, summing up, “it’s pretty clear there’ll be an investigation.”
“Which means,” Mark said to Uncle Dave, “I think we can safely stick with the ‘toast’ analogy, when it comes to your chances of cashing in on this little scam.”
By now, Uncle Dave had begun looking a bit ill. “Well,” his sister said, glaring at him, “what do you have to say for yourself?”
I have to give him this: good old Uncle Dave managed to rally somewhat. He coughed, got to his feet, and bowed to his hosts. “Thank you all for your hospitality,” he said. “I think I can see my way out.” With that, he turned and strode out of the room, and then out of my house. Moments later, I heard his car turn over in my driveway.
Ruthie looked puzzled. “But he was my ride.”
Fred bent and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll give you a lift home.”
As he helped her to her feet, she smiled at Isaac. “Thank you, Isaac. Though I must admit…well, I am a little disappointed. I so wanted some sign that Daddy was still with us, still watching over me.”
Isaac rose and took her hand. “Who’s to say he isn’t? After all, it’s just my opinion that you’d fallen asleep and dreamed that you saw him. Maybe you actually did. Then there’s last night… Doesn’t it seem oddly coincidental that the lights would suddenly go out and the tea kettle would whistle, so that Dave would have to improvise some way to explain it, and thus reveal himself?”
Ruthie’s eyes glistened. “I…I hadn’t thought of it like that. You might be right, Isaac. Thank you.”
Then, to my astonishment, he bent and kissed her hand.“ My pleasure, Ruthie,” he said. The old rascal.
“My thanks, too, Isaac,” Fred said, as he led his mother out of the room.
“Well, good work, Isaac,” Mark said. “Again. Sometimes I wonder why the rest of us even bother to show up.”
“Don’t be bitter,” Bill said.
I turned to Isaac. “That was really nice, Isaac. What you said to Ruthie before she left.”
“I wasn’t trying to be nice,” Isaac answered. “Not my style. I merely expressed what I believe to be true.”
“Which is you never know.” With that, he picked up the kettle from the side table and headed for the kitchen.
“Anyone for tea?” he asked.
Check out a review of Dennis’ brand new mystery novel Night Terrors in this issue & enter to win a copy of the book!