“What the hell was that?” I muttered as the rear tires went thump-thump over something.
Throwing Princess into “park” I leapt out to investigate.
“Please don’t let it be another flat tire,” I prayed. It had taken me two hours to replace the last one, my hands and shoulders still ached from the effort. Not to mention I no longer had a spare to put on.
Having grabbed the flashlight stowed beside the windshield, I began to sweep the area with the light. At first, I was relieved to see that Princess did not appear to be listing, which seemed to indicate the tires were intact, but then the beam caught the yellow and black tread of a man’s hiking boot.
I froze for a second, forgetting to breathe.
“Depriving one’s self of oxygen has never accomplished anything,” Conroy reminded me.
I let out a shuddering sigh. “He isn’t moving. Do you think he’s dead? Do you think I killed him?”
“No telling until you get a better look,” Conroy reasoned.
I considered taking off the necklace and flinging the owl at the body to see if, by getting him nearer, he could answer my questions. I fiddled with the chain resting at the back of my neck, but ultimately decided to move closer myself.
I shuffled forward uncertainly. “Hello?” I called softly. “Mister?”
I got no response.
The beam from the flashlight wobbled around as I was unable to still the trembling of my hands.
“Pull yourself together,” Conroy urged. “Whether or not he’s dead is notyour biggest problem.”
I acknowledged his wisdom with a brief nod. Forcing myself to take a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and stopped shaking. I covered the last few steps with a sense of purpose. This was just an inconvenient hiccup to be dealt with as I overcame the bigger issue of being haunted by Mildred for eternity.
Crouching down to get a better look at the body under the RV, I was both startled and relieved to see that the man, who I assumed had been in his late twenties, had a distinct hole in his forehead. I’m not any kind of medical professional, nor like many others, do I claim to know better than those who are, but I was pretty sure this meant that being run over hadn’t killed him.
Still, I didn’t relish the idea of getting involved with another police investigation. Standing up, I pulled the penny from my pocket. “Whatchya think, Link? Do I call the cops?” I tossed the coin high in the air and waited to catch it.
The shout in the darkness startled me. Whirling to discover its source, I lost sight of the falling penny as I searched the shadows with my light.
“Did you run over Keith?” a grizzled old man asked stepping closer. He leaned his weight heavily on an ornate carved walking stick.
I remained silent, knowing it would make sense to refrain from inadvertently incriminating myself.
Footsteps and heavy breathing rushed toward us through the night. I regretted not arming myself before getting out of the RV. I took a step back, moving closer to the driver’s door.
Two people burst onto the scene; their faces illuminated by the old man’s light.
“Where is he, Ernie?” a shirtless man, with wet hair plastered to his head, demanded to know.
“Under there, Joe,” the old man, Ernie, replied pointing under the RV.
“I don’t see him,” the woman in flannel pajamas beside Joe complained, leaning forward to get a better look.
Joe rounded on her. “That’s because you forgot your glasses, Norma.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Norma gave Joe a hard stare. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, Joseph Steck. I don’t need them for distance, just for close-up work.”
The old man pointed at me. “She ran him over.”
I flinched at the accusation in his voice and fought the urge to defend myself.
“Ding dong the witch is dead,” a dry voice drawled from the darkness. A man with a handlebar mustache, lugging a couple of long black bars beneath his armpit, emerged from the woods.
It took me a moment to realize he was carrying a telescope and tripod.
“I,” he announced with exaggerated self-importance, “am Marco Costello, and who might you be?”
Again, I remained silent.
Tess, who’d checked me into the campground and sent me to this particular campsite, walked up. “Cops have been called.” She squinted at me. “You run Keith over?”
Considering the man’s body was visible beneath my vehicle, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to nod, but I remained motionless, revealing nothing.
I’d learned my lesson the last time. It doesn’t pay to answer questions when you’ve got no idea what’s going on. Silence was my friend.
“She probably couldn’t see him lying there,” Marco, the amateur astronomist, guessed.
A surge of gratitude filled me for Mr. Costello. At least someone wasn’t thinking the worst of me.
“Whoever killed him, probably picked this spot because it’s so dark,” he continued, snapping his tripod open and placing it on the ground.
“If it was so dark, how come you found him?” Ernie challenged.
“Because I too needed a dark spot for my work.” Marco raised his telescope like a marching band leader directing his troops. “Light is the enemy of—”
“Hang on,” I interrupted, tightening my grip on my flashlight. “Are you telling me that you found this body before I even got here?”
“Yes, my dear.” Marco tugged on his mustache.
“And you just left him here?” I asked.
Before he could respond, flashing lights and a wailing siren approached from down the road.
“Must be Welmont,” Tess griped. “Any excuse to make a spectacle.” She ushered everyone who faced the RV out of the way. “You’d all better move. His daddy is a lousy driver too.”
The crowd shuffled off the road, gathering into a tighter knot.
I felt isolated and vulnerable, standing there alone in front of the RV. My back stiffened and my gut clenched.
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” Millie meowed from inside the camper. “You’ll never catch the tailless squirrel if you get yourself locked up.”
“I’m not going to be locked up,” I muttered, doing my best ventriloquist impression.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Conroy reminded me.
Technically that wasn’t true. I hadrun over a corpse.
I wanted to ask the owl around my neck whether or not he thought I could be charged with disturbing a crime scene or causing injury to a human body, but I bit my tongue. Stomach lurching as the approaching police car skidded to a stop yards away, I forced myself to lower my shoulders in an attempt to appear relaxed.
The officer climbed out of the squad car and surveyed the crowd. He looked like he was stepping straight off a recruitment poster, from his blonde buzz cut all the way down to his shoes that were shined to the point where they blindingly reflected the headlights of his vehicle. Finally, his gaze settled on Tess. “You called?”
“We got a—” she began.
The rest of her sentence was drowned out by the cacophony of voices eager to share with the officer their take on the situation. They advanced toward him like a rugby scrum, each raising their volume in order to be heard.
I stayed silent while Welmont tried to corral the boisterous crowd.
Goosebumps rose along the length of my neck. “Someone’s watching me,” I murmured to Conroy, swiveling my head from side-to-side in search of who was observing me with such interest.
To my right, I saw a flash of movement in the woods. I squinted, trying to make it out.
What I saw didn’t make any sense. It was a black top hat, a red ribbon banded at the base.
“That doesn’t make sense,” I muttered peering intently at the headwear, trying to see the wearer.
“What doesn’t?” Conroy asked.
“Step away from the body!” Welmont, the cop, yelled.
Startled, I looked over at him.
“Step away.” He motioned for me to walk toward him.
I did as he asked. There was no need to get off on the wrong foot with the law enforcement officer.
As I walked toward him, I glanced at the spot where the hat had been.
It was gone.