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Death in the Fort - Chapter Thirteen

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 13

So Darleen was actually named Nikki. And Nikki wasn't dead. Was Darleen? The real Darleen, I mean? Probably. This was all way too confusing.

Jaime and I were taking a walk through Lakeside Park, randomly heading toward our old elementary school (kind of out of habit, I guess) and generally not talking about what had happened only a few hours before - the whole bit with Travis and his switchblade. Jaime, his arm linked with mine, was rambling on - babbling, really, about sticky situations he'd gotten himself into in the past - and doing a really good job of making me feel like less of an idiot. Compared to him, I mean.

"... so I crawled up on top of the Spencerville Covered Bridge at 2 a.m. and then realized, 'Hey! I have to go to the bathroom!' "

I laughed, but the whole situation with Darleen and Nikki - whoever they were - was still on my mind. It made my laughter sound kind of hollow and fake, like job interview laughter. And every time I thought about our run-in with Travis, my stomach felt queasy. "Like the bottom of a birdcage," my mom would've said.

Jessica was back at the house, talking with Jaime's ex-wife, Teisha. She'd come to pick up the girls for the weekend. She's a great mom, but I've hated her ever since she was in purple overalls. And it has nothing to do with Jaime, I swear. Like a million years ago, she and I were crossing guards together at Forest Park Elementary School. And one day, working the corner at Forest and California avenues, she looked at me and said, "Martha, you're not pretty. And you're not ugly. You're just plain." Apropos of nothing. That'll make you hate someone forever.

So Jaime and I were walking - happily, away from Teisha. And we were finally getting around to discussing the current Darleen situation.

"What bothers me," I said, "is that Darleen - the real Darleen - sounds like she had this terrible life. No family. No parents. That could be me. Bad luck and everything."

"You know, Martha," Jaime looked down at his feet, plodding through the grass. "There are a lot of people around here who care about you."

Awkward. Things used to be so simple between Jaime and me. I can't help wishing they still were. But lately, every time we're alone, he ends up saying something like this. Something like "I care about you." And part of me - the part that is comfortable, or at least used to, being alone in the world - wants to smack his teeth out.

"Me, for instance," he said. "I care about you. And I wouldn't let just anybody steal your money. If you had any. Do you?"

"Do I what?" I said.

"Have any money?" he asked, smiling.

"You're a blockhead, Charlie Brown," I said.

Back on Loree Street, we found Jessica sitting cross-legged on the floor of our living room, the contents of the mystery box spread around her in a semicircle. Behind her, an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" was playing on the television. She'd muted it, but I could still see some woman staring at a quilt and clutching her heart. The thing was probably worth $20,000 - and I'll bet you anything, this woman had been eating crackers over it for decades. This is the kind of thing Jessica loves about that show.

"I've come to a conclusion," Jessica said, picking up the letter we'd found inside Darleen's box and shaking it at us. "The stuff in this box is not just junk. These are clues."

She handed me the letter. Dear Nikki. Sorry about the mess in the kitchen. Couldn't be helped. Darleen. And then tossed one of Shay's newspaper articles at me. It was the one that described finding the body of Nikki Statler, face down in a puddle of blood in the kitchen of her home.

"A suicide note?" Jaime asked.

"I don't get it," I said. Yes, I'm slow. But I was also a little distracted. I knew Travis and Nikki might show up again soon - tomorrow or the next day or tonight even, right while I was putting on my pajamas and applying Zit Zapper or something - and the idea of it made me want to run screaming to the police.

"This is the real Darleen's suicide note," Jaime said. "Nikki just made off with Darleen's identity - and all her settlement money."

"Exactly," Jessica said. "And if we look hard enough, I'm pretty sure we're going to find that money in here, too."

She grabbed the bottle of talcum powder and displayed it, like one of Barker's Beauties on "The Price is Right."

"Cocaine." She whispered it, nodding solemnly.

"Oooo," Jaime said. "Give it!"

Jaime and Jessica both made a grab for the bottle; Jessica squeezing it so hard that a huge puff of powder shot right into Jaime's face. Ripping the lid off, she dipped her finger into the bottle and touched some of the powder to the tip of her tongue.

"What's cocaine supposed to taste like?" I asked.

She sat there, touching her tongue over and over, frowning.

"I don't know," she said. "This tastes like chalky flowers. Does cocaine taste like that?"

"Crocket and Tubbs. On the case." Jaime grabbed the bottle and squeezed a cloud of talcum powder toward Jessica's face. "You're a real gumshoe, Jess."

Jessica was right. Laid out like that, the items in Darleen's box seemed less like junk - the last bit of stuff you scoop off a dresser and into a box when you're moving - and more like little puzzles. Should we take the fountain pen apart? Would there be diamonds in there? Something here was worth thousands of dollars - maybe more - but we were too dumb to see it.

"Too bad we don't have the Cosby sweater to go with these buttons," I said, picking up the handful of painted doohickeys. "It might be a collector's item. Flower buttons. She must've stolen these from the set of 'The Golden Girls.' "

I randomly shook the buttons, like dice. The real Darleen - the one from Auburn, the one who was so depressed she'd killed herself - was on my mind. Here was a woman who was totally alone. I couldn't help wondering what her life would've been like if she'd been the one to move next door to us - two busybodies who would've borrowed cups of sugar and insisted she come to our parties; who would have bothered her like she was family. Would she have felt so alone then? Would she have killed herself?

When I was about 14, my dad caught me drinking some cruddy purple booze (Purple Passion, it was called) in our garage. Naturally, he was ticked. But instead of screaming at me, he sat me down at the kitchen table and told me a story. A long one.

In 1880 - I hated it when he started stories with dates, but I was in no position to argue - my great-grandfather left Ireland and came to America. He was only about 14 at the time - totally alone on a boat and probably wearing some damp, itchy wool coat like immigrants are always wearing in the movies. Anyway, after settling with an aunt and uncle in Michigan, he spent his first full day in The Mitten watching a few American boys play baseball at a local park. And he must've watched for a while, because he eventually figured out the rules of the game and asked the boys if he could play with them. They played until dark.

"From that day on, this man - your great-grandfather - knew two things. He was an American. And he was a short stop. Martha, my dear. … What are you?"

At the time, I had no answer for him. I do now.

I am a good neighbor.

"Give me those!" Jessica smacked the buttons out of my hand, shocking me out of my revelry and scattering them all over the floor. She frantically dropped to her knees, crawling around and carefully picking up each button.

"These aren't just buttons," she said, pointing (no, more like jabbing) at the TV. Some woman was displaying a set of "Blondie" comic books to a Antiques Roadshow expert.

"What?" I said.

"These aren't just buttons," she said. Emphasis, remember? "These are money."