The crowing of a rooster below their window woke Jessica early the next morning. The sun was just peeking above the horizon; a quick look at the clock on the bedside table confirmed that it was, in fact, indecently early. She lay back down and closed her eyes against the strengthening light, but a second insistent crow from the opinionated rooster jolted her awake again just as she dozed off. To her wonder, George was completely oblivious to the sound; he didn’t so much as even shift position in response to the shrill noise.
Recognizing the futility of trying to get back to sleep, Jessica decided to get up and start her day. She got out of bed and dressed quietly so as not to disturb her companion, put on her walking shoes, and pocketed her room key. Finally she bent over and gave George a feather-light kiss on the forehead; he didn’t wake up but did smile softly in his sleep as she left the room and shut the door quietly behind her.
descended the steps lightly, mindful of the other guests slumbering behind the
doors of their rooms, and went outside to a fresh, cool,
“And a very good morning to you too,” she said to him as she passed him and set off down the street.
She paid no particular attention to where she was going, but simply enjoyed her surroundings and the peacefulness that accompanied the dawn. The early morning sunlight cast a rosy blush over the pastel-colored houses, and gilded the edges of the lofty palm trees that rose above them. After a few blocks she realized that her steps were taking her back towards the Hemingway House. Curious as to what the legendary home was like when everything around it was quiet and still, she continued in that direction with purpose, using the top of the lighthouse rising above the surrounding rooftops as her guide.
Jessica approached the house from the side of the property. To her surprise, the iron gate set in the high brick wall was standing open and ajar. This seemed strange to her – she knew that the house didn’t open to the public until ten AM, and it seemed very early even for staff to be arriving to work. There were no sounds of activity coming from within. Almost in spite of herself, she pushed the gate open just a little farther so she could look inside. The gate made a horrible squeal as it swung on its hinges, the sound seeming ten times as loud as it really was in the stillness of the morning, and made her cringe.
Well, she thought, she had come this far, she might as well take a look inside. She cautiously poked her head around the gate, all of her senses alert for any sign that her intrusion had been noticed.
There was no one in the area of the gardens within, unless you counted the cats. There was a group of them there, sitting on the tiled walkway, lounging under the flowers and bushes and draped over the metal stairs that led to the second floor of the carriage house. Her curiosity satisfied for the time being, Jessica moved to leave and pull the gate shut behind her.
An insistent meow at her feet made her pause. It was the little calico cat, Patches, that she had made friends with the day before when she and George had visited the house together. The cat purred and wound around her ankles, occasionally looking up at her with entreating green eyes and mournful cries. Jessica stared down at her, frozen – although she could find no rational explanation for it, she had the oddest feeling that the feline was trying to tell her something important. As an experiment, she took a step back inside the grounds, and was rewarded by the calico bounding ahead a few paces, only to stop in her tracks and look back at her, beckoning her to follow.
With a shake of her head, Jessica set off after the cat. As she did so, the others that were gathered around watching all got to their feet and silently melted away into the undergrowth until only the calico remained, leading her onwards around the back of the main house.
The calico dashed around the corner of the building to the poolside patio and screeched, a sound that made Jessica’s blood run cold as she followed after it. Looking up, she saw what had the cat upset and gasped in horror.
“No, Thomas, no,” she wailed softly as she looked upon the body floating face downwards in the pool, the brown hair of his ponytail mingling with the cloud of dark blood that marred the turquoise surface of the water.
Fortunately, Jessica was in the habit of carrying her cell phone with her wherever she went. It had proved useful in a few previous situations, and it was useful now. She called 911 first to report the crime, and George’s cell phone next.
George answered it, and from the sound of his voice she could tell she had woken him out of a sound sleep. “Sutherland here.”
“George, it’s me.”
“Jessica,” he mumbled, still only half awake. “How wonderful to hear your …” There was a pause as he woke up enough to remember where he was, and where she was supposed to be. “Where are you?” he asked, more clearly.
“The Hemingway estate. I woke up early and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I went for a walk. George – Thomas is dead.”
“Dead?” he repeated. She could hear him moving around the room, pulling on his clothes.
“Murdered,” she confirmed.
“I’ll be right there.”
Jessica snapped her cell phone shut
and put it back in her pocket. With nothing else to do until the
The memory was pushed away as she recognized the significance of the glasses being perched up on that rail. She had assumed that Thomas had been shot on the patio, then simply fallen backwards into the pool, but now it was plain to her that he had met his killer on the veranda above, and shot with enough force to send him toppling backwards over the rail before landing in the pool. It made sense; she could practically see the tragedy unfolding before her eyes.
As she pondered this scenario she noticed something else hanging from the veranda rail. It was a small, sturdy-looking metal clip – a climber’s carabiner.
This new item proved to be more problematic. The presence of a carabiner suggested that someone had gained access to the veranda by means of climbing gear. But why, she wondered, would anyone who needed to get to the second floor climb the outside of the building when there was a perfectly good exterior staircase on the other side of the house? And who had dared this unorthodox approach in the first place? Thomas? The person who had killed him?
suddenly thought of the only person she had seen in
The police arrived first, and with practiced efficiency soon had the area around the pool barricaded while a forensic photographer took pictures of the scene and its surroundings. Jessica was led around to the front of the house and asked to wait there until the lead investigator had a chance to come speak with her, and this was where George found her when he arrived a few minutes later.
“Oh, Jessie,” he exclaimed as he rushed up to her and embraced her. “Are you all right?”
“I guess so,” she replied shakily. The few calm moments she had had since discovering Thomas’s body had been insufficient for her to fully absorb what had happened.
“What happened?” he asked her.
“He was shot,” Jessica told him. Her eyes took on a far-away look as she concentrated to remember the details of what she had seen. “I think it was with a high-powered rifle of some sort, something with enough force to throw him back over the rail of the veranda. That’s where it happened.”
“Is that so?” a voice said.
They both turned to see who had spoken and saw a man approaching them, evidently one of the ranking members of the police. In confirmation of this, the newcomer removed his identification from his shirt pocket – he wore no jacket – and showed it to them as he introduced himself. “Lieutenant Brook Fernando of the Key West Police Department,” he said. He pocketed it again as he fixed Jessica with an appraising look. “I understand you’re the one who found the body and called 911?”
“That’s right,” she replied. She and George introduced themselves, while Fernando noted their names, home addresses, and where they were staying in a small spiral notebook he carried with him.
“So,” Fernando said when these formalities were taken care of, “why do you think the victim was shot on the veranda? His body was found in the pool.”
“But his eyeglasses are hanging on the veranda’s rail,” said Jessica. “Thomas’s glasses were always loose-fitting, but the only way they could have found their way up there was if that was where he was shot.”
The detective paused in his scribbling and quirked an eyebrow at her in interest. “You know the victim?”
“Yes. His name is … was … Thomas
Manchester. He was writing a new biography on Ernest Hemingway, and was here in
Fernando turned his attention to George. “Did you also know the victim?” he asked.
“Actually, Jessica introduced me to him just yesterday,” George replied.
“Okay, Mrs. Fletcher,” Fernando said. “Tell me how you happened to find your friend’s body this morning.”
Jessica took a breath and told her story to the detective as succinctly as she could without leaving any details out: how the back gate had been open, how the estate cats had been acting strangely, impelling her to go into the grounds, and how she had found Thomas’s body floating in the pool. She also told him how she had come to see his glasses dangling on the railing overhead, but she did not mention the presence of the carabiner, or what that suggested to her.
“Lieutenant,” she said as he finished taking notes, “do you suppose Thomas’s murder could have anything to do with the paranormal investigation that happened here last night?”
Fernando looked at her in surprise. “He was here at that thing last night?”
“How do you know that?”
George and Jessica exchanged a look. “We were also in attendance at the investigation yesterday evening,” George explained.
The detective ran his hand through
his black hair, which was just beginning to show some strands of grey. “I see,”
he said, but before he could follow up with questions about the events of the
night before they were interrupted by the arrival of Chuck Berra, the president
“Who’s in charge here?” he asked. He
sounded somewhat breathless, and Jessica gathered that he had rushed to get
Lieutenant Fernando turned to face the newcomer. “I am,” he said, and introduced himself to Berra, showing him his badge for emphasis.
“The officer who called me said something about a murder,” Berra said. “Is that true?”
Fernando didn’t bother to answer that question, as the stretcher that the paramedics wheeled past them at that moment was confirmation enough. Jessica bowed her head as they passed by, prompting George to put his arm around her shoulders to give her a comforting squeeze.
Berra stared at the shrouded form in horror as it was taken out the front gate and loaded into the back of an ambulance to be taken to the medical examiner’s office. “Who … who was it?” he asked.
“Thomas Manchester, the writer who was doing research here,” Fernando replied.
“Oh, God …” Berra passed his hand
over his eyes. “I thought that it must have been some drunk who stumbled over
here from an altercation on
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Fernando asked.
Berra slowly lowered himself down to sit on the rim of the fountain that graced the walkway leading to the front doors. “No,” he said, “go ahead.”
“When was the last time you saw the deceased?”
“After the paranormal investigation last night,” Berra said.
“You were at that thing too?” the
lieutenant exclaimed. “Was there anyone
“I’m the one who set it up,” the museum president said.
Fernando looked at him in surprise. “You?”
“Yes. I contacted Lyle Fairbanks and invited him to investigate after repeated reports of, er, paranormal activity from tourists visiting the House.”
The detective looked distinctly skeptical, but all he said was, “I see. I’ll be wanting to talk to this Lyle Fairbanks, of course. Do you know how I can reach him?”
“Yes, he’s staying at the Radisson
Fernando noted this down, then looked up. “If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do after this, uh, investigation was complete?”
“I went home,” Berra said simply.
“You didn’t meet with or talk to the deceased after that?”
“No,” said Berra, “I did not.”
The lieutenant nodded as he scanned his notes. “I guess that’ll do for now,” he said, addressing all three of them as he flipped the notebook closed. “Please keep yourselves available; I might want to talk to you again.”
As Brook Fernando left to consult with the officers processing the scene, Jessica reached down and touched the museum president on the shoulder.
“You don’t look well, Mr. Berra,” she said sympathetically. “Is there anything we can do for you?”
Berra shook his head. “No, thank you, I’ll be fine, really …”
“Perhaps a cup of tea would help restore you,” George suggested.
The pale man looked up at this idea. “You know, that does sound good,” he said. “I have some in my office. Would you like to join me?”
They followed Berra to the museum’s administrative offices, located behind the Hemingway book shop on the lower level of the famous carriage house. The president’s office was in the back, with a small window overlooking the back wall of the property.
“I know I have some teabags here, somewhere,” Berra muttered to himself as he looked around the cluttered office for his stash. “Ah, here we are,” he said, producing a battered box of Red Rose from behind a stack of books sitting on top of a file cabinet. “It’s nothing fancy, but I like it well enough.”
Jessica found three mugs, none of them washed, sitting next to an inkjet printer. “Where can I rinse these out and fill them with water?” she asked.
“There’s a bathroom right around the corner from the secretary’s desk. When you’ve got the water, there’s a microwave oven in the outer office so you can heat it up.”
A few minutes later Jessica returned with three mugs of steaming hot water, which she set down carefully on Berra’s desk.
“Please, make yourselves comfortable,” he said as he distributed a tea bag to each of the mugs. “Sorry about the mess, but my brain seems to work best when I organize things by stacks.”
There were two wooden chairs in the room, one piled with trade magazines, the other with an assortment of books. Jessica and George carefully removed these to the floor, pulled the chairs up to the desk and sat down, accepting mugs of tea from their host as they did so.
Berra took a sip of the hot tea then sat back and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he said, “Look, for what it’s worth, I’m very, very sorry about what happened to Thomas. I know he was a friend of yours. It’s very kind of you to take some time with me when you both must be feeling his loss even more than I am.”
“Did you know Thomas well?” Jessica asked.
Berra shrugged. “Well enough, I suppose. He’d been here for a few months, but our paths didn’t cross very often. I had the museum to run and the House to keep up, and he had his research. He came in from time to time to borrow my reference materials. But he preferred to do much of his work in the evening, when the House was closed and the tourists were gone. We may not have seen eye-to-eye on the subject of Hemingway’s ghost, but I had a great deal of respect for the young man, and I was looking forward to the completion of his new Hemingway biography, which I hoped would stimulate more interest in the museum.”
“Is the museum in financial trouble?” asked George, drinking his own tea. It wasn’t quite up to his usual standards as teas went, but he had to admit that it was much better than he had expected.
Berra dunked his tea bag a few more times, and squeezed out the last drops from it with a plastic spoon. “Non-profit foundations such as this are always in some degree of financial trouble,” he said. “Our entire budget relies on private funding and admission fees from the public. And each year it seems like the costs of running this place go up: the maintenance fees for the house and grounds, the care and feeding of the cats, the light bill, the water bill … This year we took a particularly hard hit when the insurance company that underwrites us jacked up its rates for the third time in five years. They said it was because of the increasing threat of hurricane damage.”
“I can understand why that would put you under considerable stress,” said Jessica. “But if the museum runs on such a shoestring budget, how is it you were able to find the money to pay for Lyle Fairbanks’ services? I’m assuming that he was working for a fee,” she finished.
Berra nodded. “He was. We paid him five thousand dollars to do the investigation.”
“A lot of money for a non-profit to have to pay,” George commented.
“I know. But if he managed to find proof that the ghost is for real – and he seemed very confident after last night’s session that he had done just that – then the increase in visitorship that would result makes it worth the gamble.”
“How did you learn about Mr. Fairbanks in the first place?” asked Jessica.
“Through research on the Internet,” Berra said, taking another drink of his tea. Jessica noted with relief that some of the color was returning to his face, and he no longer looked like he was going to collapse on the spot. “His name was mentioned in connection to several previous prominent ghost investigations. He seemed to have a talent for finding proof of ghosts where other paranormal investigators failed. I picked him by reputation, essentially.”
“Mr. Berra, you seem to have a particular fascination with ghosts,” Jessica said gently. “If you don’t mind my asking, why is that?”
The museum president set down his tea mug, steepled his fingers, and momentarily rested his forehead against them before answering. “I have a heart condition,” he said at length when he raised his head again to look at them. “I was diagnosed with it as a teenager. Once, when I was a sophomore in college, my heart just stopped beating right in the middle of watching a football game with my friends. It was Homecoming Weekend – I remember it like it was yesterday. I don’t remember what happened with any clarity – I just know that I felt weak, and blacked out. They had an ambulance down by the field in case any of the players got injured, and apparently the paramedics used the electric cardioresuscitator paddles they had on board to revive me. If it hadn’t been for that, I would probably have died on the spot before any help arrived.”
“You were very lucky,” George said.
“I was. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the emergency room of the local hospital. Later on, my buddies told me that right after they delivered the jolt of power to get my heart beating again, I started flailing and shouting out names. They told me what those names were … they were all names of relatives of mine that had been dead and gone for years.”
Jessica felt a chill run up her spine. “So, you surmised that while you were unconscious you had a near-death experience.”
He nodded. “That would seem to be the logical conclusion,” he said. “Ever since then I’ve had a keen interest in anything having to do with the afterlife – including that most controversial of questions, whether the souls of those who have died walk among us here on earth.”
“Well,” said Jessica as she and George walked through the museum’s lush grounds after leaving Berra’s office, “I may have to upgrade my opinion of Mr. Berra.”
“He certainly came across as a much more thoughtful, logical fellow than he did last night, yes,” George agreed. “And the fact that he has a chronic heart condition would explain why his complexion looks so pasty all of the time.”
“Yes, I had wondered about that myself.” She fell silent for a moment, then said, “George, I think that I’m inclined to believe what he told Lieutenant Fernando.”
“About not communicating with Thomas at all after he went home for the night? Aye, I think he’s telling the truth as well – if only because he doesn’t seem the sort to be staying up all hours luring people to the museum for nefarious purposes. Still, he did have a motive.”
Jessica looked at him, knowing that they were both thinking the same thing. “His desire to get more paying tourists through the gates,” she said. “I agree, he does have more riding on the outcome of Mr. Fairbanks’ investigation than personal interest.”
“But would he kill to remove an obstacle to what
To this Jessica had no answer.