I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 17
“I’m about to find out,” Brenda said, pulling out the screwdriver again. “You said Mrs. Dalton didn’t want any of this stuff; if we find anything of value, we could always sell it and give the money to charity, couldn’t we?”
“Well … yes, I guess so, but I really don’t think we should open things until we ask her.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it; she won’t care.” Brenda then proceeded to snap open all four locks and pulled the trunks apart. One trunk was packed full of ladies’ evening gowns, and the other was full of men’s formal clothes.
“Oh heck, it’s just a bunch of old clothes,” said Brenda.
But Maggie was delighted and pulled a gown out of the lady’s trunk. “Oh my goodness, these are just beautiful! I think most of these are originals from Paris!” Brenda held one up. Sadly, they were too small to fit either one of them. Maggie then opened up one of the small drawers on the side and found a pair of black beaded evening slippers with a purse to match. “Oh wow. If Mrs. Dalton doesn’t want them, these will be great period costumes for the theater.”
“Great,” Brenda said, “but before you start giving anything away, let’s see if there’s anything else in here.” While Maggie continued to examine the gowns, Brenda was busy pulling aside each one of the men’s suits. Suddenly, she jumped back and said, “Woooooo …!”
Maggie looked over. “What? Did you find something?”
Brenda did not answer, but stood there with her eyes wide, pointing. “Woooooo,” she said again.
“What is it?” Maggie walked over and looked where Brenda was pointing. At that same moment, a ray of golden sun shot through the window and lit up the inside of the trunk like a spotlight. What Maggie saw then nearly scared her to death. Hanging neatly on a hanger, among the men’s evening clothes, was a man’s skeleton, completely dressed in a formal Scottish kilt and a plaid sash, with one bony hand still stuck in the pocket of a black velvet jacket.
Maggie grabbed Brenda’s arm. “Good God, is it real? That can’t be a real skeleton, can it?”
“I don’t know, but I’m about to find out. Stand back.” Brenda leaned in a little closer and poked it with the screwdriver, and what she hit was definitely hard bone. She dropped her purse and yelled, “Hell, yes, it’s real … Let’s get out of here!”
And the two of them sounded like a herd of buffalo, running back down the narrow stairs. When they finally got to the first floor and caught their breath and could speak again, Maggie said, “I have to sit down.”
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack.” Brenda, still breathing heavily, held out her hand. “Look at me, I’ve got the willies—I’m shaking all over. I need a cookie or a piece of cake or something or I might pass out. My emergency chocolate is upstairs in my purse. Will you go get it?”
Maggie looked at her. “Me? No, I’m not going back up there! What emergency chocolate?”
“Never mind,” Brenda said and flopped down on the sofa and started fanning herself with a pillow. Maggie collapsed in the chair across from her and said, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone up there. I don’t know why you don’t listen to me.”
“How was I supposed to know there was a dead man up there?”
“We should have just left those trunks alone then—” Maggie stopped in mid-sentence and put her hands over her mouth. “Oh my God.”
“ ‘Oh my God’ is right,” said Brenda. “That thing was looking right at me.”
“No, Brenda. I mean really, oh my God.”
Then Maggie uttered the dreaded word: “Disclosure!”
Brenda stopped fanning herself. Suddenly, all their dreams of a big fat commission began to fade away. Both having been in real estate as long as they had, they knew from past experience that people were very reluctant to buy a house where a dead body had been found. And certainly not at anywhere near the asking price.
“Well. There goes my TV,” Brenda wailed.
Maggie was shaking her head. “I just can’t believe it. Why did it have to be this house?”
“What are we going to do now?” asked Brenda.
“I don’t know …” she sighed. “I guess the first thing we have to do is call the police. Oh, I hate for us to get involved in something like this. You know it’s going to wind up in the papers,” Maggie said, opening her purse. “And who would send a dead body to someone anyway?”
“You’re asking me? I don’t know.”
“And what was it doing in a trunk in the first place?” she asked, looking for her phone.
Brenda said, “Maybe he was a stowaway.”
“Yeah. Maybe somebody forgot to open up the trunk on the other end and let him out.”
Maggie was still digging around in her purse. “Where’s my phone … oh, here it is. Brenda, would you call? I’m too nervous to talk. And, Brenda, try not to give the police our names, if at all possible.”
“Okay, I’ll try.” Brenda reluctantly took the phone. “But what should I say?”
“Just say that we’re two real estate agents who happened to be rummaging through some old trunks and … No, don’t say that; they’ll think we were trying to steal things … Don’t tell them you pried them open with a screwdriver. No, wait! You can’t do that; they’ll see they’ve been tampered with … Oh God, I guess we have to tell the truth. We don’t want to be brought up on charges.” Maggie put her face in her hands. “Oh no, now we’re going to be involved in an investigation. They’re probably going to take our fingerprints and everything. But I guess it’s too late. It can’t be helped now. Go ahead and call. And then I guess we should call Mrs. Dalton and tell her.”
Brenda was just about to dial the police, but then she stopped. “Hold on a minute! Before we call anybody, let’s just think about this. Nobody knows we found that dead man but you and me, right?”
“So, maybe we don’t have to call the police.”
“Of course we do. We have to report it.”
“Because you have to report a dead body!”
“Why? It’s not like it’s a recent death or something.”
“Because they’re dead, that’s why.”
“Okay, but it’s not like Judy Spears’s listing, when she found that woman in the freezer. That woman still had a full body; Judy said she was still wearing earrings and a longline girdle. Her husband had murdered her with a pickax.”
Maggie winced. “Don’t tell me the details … what’s your point?”
“My point is that hers was a full dead body, and ours is just bones.”
“Well, full body or not, ours is still a person. It doesn’t matter. We have to call the police. Lord … I didn’t think of that. We don’t know how that man died; we might wind up in the middle of a murder investigation.”
“That’s right. And don’t forget, after Judy disclosed that she found that murdered woman in the freezer in the basement, the house never did sell. They wound up tearing it down and putting up a Jiffy Lube shop.”
“I know all that, Brenda, but as licensed agents, we have to disclose.”
“Why? It’s not like we took a Hippocratic oath. You don’t want this house to be torn down just because of a few old bones.”
“No, of course not, but I don’t want to get arrested for tampering with evidence either or wind up being accessories after the fact, and if anyone found out we didn’t disclose, it would be considered unethical. We could both lose our licenses.”
Brenda said, “Listen, don’t you think Babs Bingington has done worse things? You think marrying men to get their listings and stealing clients right and left is not unethical? She still has her license. Besides, a skeleton is not a serious health threat to the buyer, it’s not mold or asbestos or a weak foundation, it’s just a few old bones, and once removed from the premises, it won’t hurt anybody.”
“Maybe not, but if somebody were to …” Maggie suddenl
“Just what I said.”
“Brenda, what’s the matter with you? You can’t just remove a dead body from the premises. It’s not like a set of dishes or a painting. We have a moral and legal obligation to find out who he is, or was anyway, not to mention a Christian obligation to notify the family and make sure he has a proper burial.”
“We will … but it doesn’t have to be right this minute, does it? We have to think about the office. We need this sale to keep going, and that man’s been waiting to be buried since 1946, so waiting until we close escrow and I get my TV won’t bother him. He’s dead in a trunk. What does he care?”
Maggie could see that Brenda might have a point.
“Think about it while I’m gone,” Brenda said as she stood up to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“To get my purse. Dead body or not, I need my candy.”
After Brenda left, Maggie realized that it was something to think about, all right. She had put off her jumping-in-the-river plans in order to try to sell Crestview and save it from Babs and the bulldozers. Maggie was tempted, but as usual, she was still torn about what she should do. She had to think about her reputation; after all, she was an ex–Miss Alabama.
A few minutes later, Brenda came back downstairs with her purse, eating a Hershey bar, and said, “Well … have you thought about it?”
Maggie looked at her. “When you said remove it, just what exactly did you have in mind?”
“Simple. We remove it from the trunk.”
“We? I’m not touching it. I’d be scared to touch it. You don’t know what he died of. He could have had the black plague or something.”
“Oh, all right. If you’re so scared, Robbie has a drawer full of surgical gloves; I’ll go get you a pair. Okay?”
“Well … if,” said Maggie, “and this is just a hypothetical if … but if we were to remove it, we would have to do it at night.”
“Because you can’t move something like that in broad daylight.”
“Okay. Then let’s just move the whole trunk.”
“What? You and I can’t carry that trunk; it weighs a ton. And we certainly don’t want an accomplice.”
“You’re right; they always squeal in the end,” Brenda said. “We’ll just take it out of the trunk, wrap it in a blanket, and move it ourselves. We can do it.”
“But it just sounds … so illegal. I just don’t think I can.”
Brenda looked at her. “Wrecking ball?”
It was a persuasive argument. Maggie said, “All right … let’s just say that if we were to remove it, where we would move it to?”
Brenda thought for a moment. “How about your place?”
“My place! Where?”
“What about under your bed?”
“Brenda, do you really think I’m going to sleep with a skeleton under my bed? Besides, people are coming in and out all the time to show the unit, and Lupe cleans under the bed every week.”
“Hey, I know: we can put him in storage. Robbie and I have a storage bin over at Vestavia Mini-Storage, and she never goes in there; it’s mostly my stuff.”
“Are you sure she never goes in there?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Okay, say we do sell the house, what then? How are we going to explain how he … it … got all the way to Vestavia Mini-Storage … that he walked?”
“No. We get someone to bring the trunks over to storage, and then after the house sells, we put him back and say we just opened the trunks and found him.”
“Yes, but why did we take the trunks to storage in the first place?”
“Simple. We were clearing the house out for showings. Nobody’s going to question that.”
“No, I guess not,” Maggie said, beginning to be persuaded; she had stored things when she had been staging houses before. “But before we decide to do anything, I need to make a call first.”
Brenda handed her the phone, and Maggie dialed and closed her eyes while she waited, preparing herself.
“Hello, Mrs. Dalton, it’s Maggie Fortenberry. I’m so sorry to bother you, but my partner, Brenda, and I are over at the house, and it appears we don’t have all the keys … and I was wondering … do you happen to have a key to the attic?”
“The attic?” asked Mrs. Dalton.
“Yes, ma’am, on the fourth floor … up the little flight of stairs?”
There was a long silence.
“Oh! I know what you’re talking about. No, I’m sorry, I don’t have a key. We were never allowed up there. Mother said those stairs were off-limits to us, and back then, what Mother said went.”
“Ah … well, do you know who might have a key?”
“I see. So, you don’t know what’s up there?”
“No, I’m sorry, dear, I have no idea. As I said, when I was a child, what Mother said went. Not like how it is now; back then, when Mother said, ‘Eat your vegetables,’ you ate your vegetables.”
“Well, no problem, but thank you anyway.”
Maggie hung up and felt a little better. The last living resident of the house had no idea there was a dead man up in a trunk in the attic. That was some good news. The bad news was that if they were going to move it, they had to do it tonight. In her excitement over selling Crestview, she had called and made an appointment with the building inspector to come first thing in the morning, and now that Brenda had knocked the door open, he was sure to go in and look around. This was one of those times she was going to have to make a decision and pray it was the right one.
The Big Caper
LATER THAT NIGHT, SCARED TO DEATH, MAGGIE DROVE OVER AND honked twice. Brenda came out carrying a blanket, dressed completely in black, and when she got in the car, she handed Maggie a pair of surgical gloves. “Here, put these on.” Then she looked at Maggie and made a face. “Where did you get that pink coat?”
Brenda was surprised. Maggie usually had better taste in clothes than that, but she didn’t say anything. As they approached Crestview, Maggie turned off the headlights and drove up the driveway in the dark and parked. Inside, Brenda used her small flashlight to help them find their way back upstairs. When they got to the attic, they laid the blanket out on the floor, and Brenda reached inside the trunk and tried to pull the hanger out, but it was stuck. “It won’t come out. You’re going to have to help me.” Maggie closed her eyes and reached in and pushed aside some clothes to make more room, and it worked. But when Brenda jerked the hanger out of the trunk, they heard something drop.
Maggie asked, “What was that?”
“I don’t know, but we got him.” Brenda carefully laid the skeleton out on the blanket on the floor, and as she did, it made an eerie clacking noise. Maggie felt as if she might faint. Brenda then wrapped the blanket around the skeleton, picked it up, and threw it over her shoulder, where it rattled with each step. When they got outside, Maggie opened the car door, and Brenda put the bundle in the backseat.
As they drove to Vestavia, Brenda turned around in her seat and checked it out with her flashlight to make sure it was all right. All of a sudden, she frantically started flashing the light all over the backseat and then yelled, “Oh, my God.”
“What?” said Maggie, almost driving the car into a lamppost.
“You’re not gonna like this—there’s a foot missing!”
“There’s a foot missing. We lost a foot somewhere!”
“Yes. The thing only has one foot.”
“Are you sure it’s not on the floor?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Turn around. We have to go back for it.”
Maggie did as she was told, and the next thing they heard was a siren, and then they saw the blue lights flashing behind them. Brenda stopped breathing. Maggie pulled to the curb.
“Good evening,” said Maggie with a big smile. “Is there something wrong?”
“Ma’am, do you know you made an illegal U-turn back there?”
“I did? Oh, I’m so sorry. But I just remembered something I forgot and had to go back and get it, and I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing.”
“May I see your license and registration, please?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Have you had anything to drink tonight, ma’am?”
“No, sir. I never drink and drive.”
As the officer was examining her license, Maggie continued, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “And I’m sure you must be wondering why there’s a skeleton wearing a Scottish kilt in the backseat, but there is a perfectly good explanation.”
At that instant, Brenda thought about jumping out of the car and making a run for it, but she was now frozen in her seat and couldn’t move.
The officer looked at Maggie and said, “Excuse me?”
“I said, I’m sure you’re wondering about the skeleton wearing a Scottish kilt we have in the backseat, but there’s a perfectly good explanation.”
“Yes. The Scottish Society had its big Halloween bash last weekend, and my friend and I are on the decorating committee, and we were just returning it.”
The officer shined his light in the backseat and saw the skeleton’s head sticking out of the top of the blanket. “Is that thing real?”
Maggie laughed. “Well … it certainly looks real, doesn’t it? But no, it’s just plastic. One of the members is a chiropractor, and he lets us use it as a decoration every year, and my friend Brenda just noticed that a foot was missing, and I was going back to get it—that’s why I made that sudden turn back there. I had that foot on my mind and, again, I am so sorry.”
“Well, I’m going to let you off with a warning this time, but you ladies be a little more careful, okay?”
“I will, and thank you so much, Officer. I really appreciate all the good work you do. I know your job is not easy, is it?”
“No, ma’am … it’s not easy.”
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