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Death in the Fort - Chapter Eleven

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 11

Turns out, Cyrus Withers was more than Darleen's ex-landlord. He was an artist, of sorts, too. Folk art, they'd call it - if yuppies were willing to pay thousands for it - and the porch of his big two-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Auburn was filled with the stuff.

"This is how I pay the milkman," he said, gesturing toward a dozen flat pieces of salvaged wood, painted crudely to look (sort of) like Elvis Presley at various ages. Baby Elvis with a straw hat and corncob pipe. Elvis as a hunky honky-tonker. Fat Elvis, sitting on a toilet seat, wearing a gold suit and reading a magazine. Cyrus was a big fan, apparently.

"Of course, it helps if I have a tenant like Darleen," he said. "Moneywise. Know anybody who needs a place to live? I've got a couple rooms to rent."

Cyrus didn't wait for our answer. Instead, he guided us toward the back door, which was nestled between two dead trees. The trees - a couple of spiny old things - were all strung up with old glass bottles and shards of broken mirror. It sounds ugly, but it was actually kind of nice, the way they caught and reflected the light and everything.

"Welcome," he said. "To Rancho Relaxo." He opened the door, and we walked into his ramshackle kitchen/workshop. The inside of the house didn't look much different from the outside; Elvis was still staring at us from every direction. The majority of the kitchen floor, however, was taken up by an old tree trunk carved to look like the head of a bear.

"I like what you've done with the place," Jessica said. She was serious. In fact, I could see her collecting ideas for her "The Waltons meet Burning Man" party.

"Can I borrow this bear head next week?" she asked. I shoved her.

"So Darleen is living in Fort Wayne," Cyrus said, bustling around by the stove and pouring us each a cup of oily black coffee. "I thought she'd be in Paris by now, with all the money she has."

"She's rich?" I said, taking a sip of coffee and then discreetly spitting it back into my mug. It tasted like cat.

We knew Darleen didn't work, but she didn't exactly seem rich, either. I mean, if she was rich, would she really choose to live next door to us? In our neighborhood, people decorate their porches with flowers and flags in the summertime, but - and this can't be denied - you'll see the occasional couch out there, too. They don't do that in the ritzy part of town.

"Rich as Burton," Cyrus said. "That accident - it dashed her brains, but it set her up good, too. Driver was drunk, you know. Big company like that? Darleen was no fool. She got a settlement out of it. Enough cash to beat the band. So, if you can't find her, that's probably where she is now. Paris, I mean."

"I don't see why she'd ever leave this house," Jessica said, admiring one of several wicked-looking hatchets decorating the kitchen wall.

"Took off to Cleveland, when she left here," Cyrus said. "That accident left her in a bad way. Cousin of hers was going to take care of her for a while, she said. Poor thing doesn't have any parents or family to speak of."

Jessica dug into her purse and yanked out the two photographs we'd found inside Darleen's box. (She was currently keeping the entire box in her car. I felt sorry for it.) She laid them - the photo of Darleen and the old guy, and the photo of the sad-looking woman next to the guitar - on the kitchen table.

"If she has no family then who's this?" she asked, pointing to the picture of Darleen. "Who's this guy standing next to her?"

Cyrus picked up the photograph and squinted at it.

"Dunno who that is," he said. "But I can tell you that's not Darleen. Looks a little like her, though."

Jessica choked on her coffee - hacking and sputtering - so I started slapping her on the back. But I must've looked stunned, just the same. There I was. Mouth open, staring at Cyrus and slapping Jessica.

He continued.

"That's her." Cyrus pointed to the other photograph - the one of the woman standing by the statue of a giant guitar. "The lady that looks like someone just crapped in her fries. That's Darleen if I ever saw her."