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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Jake Horner's office was located at the end of a hallway populated by ambulance-chasing personal injury attorneys and the occasional shrink. It was on the fourth floor of an old building in downtown Nashua, New Hampshire. The first floor had been a bank until the mid-nineties. It now housed a big Chinese takeout restaurant. Jake's window looked down on the back alley, and I knew he'd be keeping it closed even on the first really hot day in July, because the smell from that alley would make you sick. I knew this because I'd worked for Jake Horner for a year and a half, first helping him out with computer tech support, and then as an assistant after I'd decided that I wanted a crack at Jake Horner's line of work.
The sign on his office said "Jake Horner, Licensed Private Investigator." There was no company name or logo like the "Lumination Agency" design that I use. Jake had been in the business a while, and business had no trouble finding him. He didn't need clever advertisements, and you wouldn't find his business cards hanging on bulletin boards like the one at the Chinese joint downstairs. Jake was a retired cop who tracked down bail-jumpers and spied on cheating wives and husbands. He'd taught me damn near everything I know about the P.I. business, but he always took great pleasure in reminding me that he'd sure as hell not taught me everything he knew about it.
Jake's secretary is a tall, broad-shouldered lady in her fifties who dresses in business suits and wears glasses. Marianne likes me. She treated me like the son she never had when I worked for Jake. Her gentle efficiency is a half-truth. Marianne spent most of her career as a guard at the women's correctional institution down in Framingham Massachusetts. Yeah, she's efficient all right. And she's gentle when she chooses to be.
She smiled when I came into the office and beckoned me over to the bowl of chocolate kisses she always kept on the desk.
"Well, well. If it isn't Chester Hall, back to visit old friends? How's business, Chess? And how about Melissa? You two still goin' together? When're you gonna get around to marrying that girl?"
I smiled and hung my Sox cap on the coat rack by the door and then leaned over Marianne's desk for a kiss on the cheek before helping myself to one of the chocolate variety.
"Business is up and down. Melissa's good. Melissa and me are good, and if wedding bells are in the air, I promise you'll be the first to know, okay?"
Marianne gave me a stern look. "Don't mess this up, Chester Hall. Girl like that's not gonna wait forever."
I didn't have a clever comeback for that, but I was saved by Jake Horner emerging from his office to greet me. Jake had just turned sixty. He's short and thick, the kind of guy who can intimidate without the benefit of size or youth. Jake Horner is what you'd think of when you pictured a Marine drill sergeant. He's ex-Navy so you wouldn't be too far off the mark.
"Chess! Boy am I glad to see you!" He shook my hand, led me into his office, and immediately began attempting to explain his latest problem with his networked laser printer. Jake and I had a working arrangement now that I was on my own. Jake would give me all the helpful advice I wanted as long as I was providing free tech support while he gave it.
We talked shop for a few minutes while I did a search for the printer driver he was missing. He'd heard through the grapevine about me locating John Barrington's daughter and he complimented me on cracking the case so quickly. I smiled at that. Jake didn't hand out praise lightly.
I was in the midst of updating his virus definitions when the reason for my visit finally came up.
"Mattie Ives?" Jake sounded surprised. "Who the hell's got you digging up that old mess?"
"Nobody," I told him. "It's personal interest."
"Well you should find yourself something else to be interested in. Case is beyond cold. It's fuckin' frigid."
"But you know about it?"
He gave a resigned look and went over to a cabinet, retrieved a flask and a shot glass and poured himself a drink. He gave me a look that I knew was an offer for one of the same, but I shook my head.
Sitting down in one of the leather chairs in front of the desk, he downed the shot, took a minute to get comfortable, and told me what he knew.
"In '79, Mattie Ives and a small group of leftover hippies started a farm collective near Lake Memphremagog in Vermont up by the Canadian border. It fell apart after less than a year. There were all kinds of stories, but basically, they couldn't get along once the money they'd saved from panhandling or selling dope or whatever it was they were doing ran out. None of 'em knew a damn thing about farming, really, and they parted ways on bad terms. Mattie broke up with the boyfriend she had up there, and she drifted down this way, living out of a beat up Chevy van and selling Indian jewelry to tourists at the flea markets and on the roadside. She was a poet and an artist, and she made little hand-lettered books with buckskin bindings, and for the better part of a year she was the darling of the local artist wannabes."
Jake got up and walked around the desk to check on my progress, pulling out a CD with one of the new spyware-removal software packages that he needed installed. I loaded it into the CD drive as Jake continued with the story.
"Then two things happened. First, Mattie decided she wanted to get serious with her art. She took up landscape painting and started working the Summer art shows in Nashua and Concord. This was a very different crowd than the flea markets. These shows attract serious collectors, and they attract upper middle class types with money to throw around and houses to decorate. The second thing happened sometime during that summer: She met Richard Harrington."
"Father of Thomas Harrington? Of Orchard Road in Bedford?" I asked.
Jake nodded. "Yep. Richard Harrington was fifty-three, raking in the dough from his construction company, married to a nasty bitch, and probably not getting laid. Until Mattie came into the picture, that is. Harrington and his wife had a couple of ugly public spats and the whole thing became pretty much common knowledge. The gossip went on for about three weeks in August of 1980, then Mattie Ives disappeared. I was a detective back then, and I got involved when one of Mattie's hippie friends came into town looking for her and got convinced that there was foul play involved. He spent about a month calling me almost every day. It wasn't even my case, but nobody up in Bedford had turned up any leads, and I guess I just came off as sympathetic. Anyway, the guy... His name was Lester Haskell... He got busted on assault charges after a bar fight and ended up doing six months jail time. I never heard from him again. I guess he gave up on the case after that."
"But you didn't?"
"Damn straight I did. There was no case. Girl up and left town, that's all."
"You remember the details awfully well, considering there was no case."
"Okay, Chess, you got me there. Look, there isn't a shred of evidence to back this, but my gut tells me that something did happen to that girl, something bad, and that somebody with money and influence was making sure nobody looked all that closely. I could smell something was wrong, but there was never anything to go on. No body, no weapon, no witnesses, and one drugged-up hippie pushing for them to investigate. So, yeah, I have a pretty good memory of it, but I don't see much point in digging up all this shit. Richard Harrington is in an old folks home with Altzheimer's, and his wife died of cancer about ten years ago. Harrington's son has a family. Hey, what got you so interested in this anyway?"
As it turns out, I'd heard the name Mattie Ives on an EVP recording made during an investigation of the Harrington House out in Bedford. The house is haunted. Of course, there was no way I was telling Jake this.
"Just heard some talk at Starro's Diner. Someone asked me if anything had ever turned up." I was lying through my teeth, and that was never a good idea around Jake, but if he saw through it, he didn't let on. He just gave me another warning that this wasn't worth stirring up and let it go at that.
I have a routine that I follow for the sake of my business. Starro's Diner is part of that routine. I eat breakfast at the counter there twice a week, chatting with the old-timers while I enjoy two eggs, hash browns, sausage links, and black coffee. The coffee is awful, but the hash browns are great. More importantly, Starro's at breakfast time is where you hear what's really going on in my town. All the rumors come through Starro's. Whether it's the presidential candidates making their way through the area in primary season, the local kids in trouble with the law, or the latest UFO sighting, Starro's is the place to hear about it. It's a good source of business for me too. I know how to get information there. I tip well, I listen, and I keep my own opinions to myself except when asked for them, which isn't often.
I visited Jake Horner on a Wednesday afternoon in late July, and I had breakfast at Starro's the next morning. I'd been obsessing over the Mattie Ives thing for a day or two now, ever since that asshole Dietrich had threatened to sue my ass over his haunted house fraud. Ronald Dietrich had hired me to help out with a haunted house investigation. He made his living writing books of local ghost stories, although I found out later he was looking to break into television. The house in question was the Harringtons' on Orchard Road in Bedford, and I'd caught Dietrich trying to hoax the investigators. He'd responded with legal threats to keep my mouth shut about what he'd tried to pull, but I ended up with the only genuine bit of psychic evidence that the team managed to collect. Actually, they all had the recording. I was the only one who recognized what the voice was saying: "Mattie Ives."
I gave myself until the end of the week to see what I could dig up. The Harringtons were away for a week in Palm Springs, so I had a couple more days to look around before they were back. I'd talked to Melissa about the case, and she'd made plans to take Friday off to have a look around the house on Orchard Road.
Meanwhile, I asked around at Starro's about Mattie Ives.
"She used to set up next to me at the flea market down at the racetrack parking lot in Salem." Russ LeBlanc told me. Russ had an antique shop and hired himself out as an auctioneer and appraiser on the side. Back in the late Seventies, Russ had still been a long way from owning his own shop.
"Mattie sold candles and Indian stuff. Said she was half Oglala Sioux. Could've been, I don't know. She was good looking and she was never shy about that, and she had a good head for selling and haggling. I was teaching her a little bit about art and antique appraising and she picked it up fast. Real shame about what happened."
Russ shook his head, and a couple of the other guys nodded.
Mick Talbot looked up from his paper and chimed in with his two cents. "Well, I never put much stock in rumors. Girl like that, she probably just found herself another boyfriend and moved on. Didn't she have family in upstate New York? Rochester or Buffalo or someplace? Maybe she just went back up that way."
Russ shook his head, "I heard the cops checked on that. They checked out all her hippie friends too. Nothing ever turned up."
"Hell, she's probably married with six kids out in the midwest somewhere." Mick called for a refill on his coffee and buried himself back in the sports section.
The conversation turned to the Red Sox and their latest losing streak, and I paid for my usual and left a couple bucks tip. I walked out of Starro's still pretty unconvinced that Mattie Ives had found her happy ending in some suburb out in Kansas or Nebraska. In fact I had a hunch I knew exactly where Mattie Ives was. By the end of the afternoon, a search of old business records at the Bedford town offices had me even more sure.
I met Melissa at her place early Friday morning and we biked out to Bedford. There were a lot of woods along Orchard Road, and the houses were set back on big lots. This was old farmland, and it had been so far been spared from developers looking to turn the landscape into cookie-cutter neighborhoods for Boston commuters.
Melissa bikes just about every day in the summer, and she's in a lot better shape than I am. I work out twice a week at a dojo in Manchester, but I've never been able to lay off the fast food. Melissa won't touch the stuff, and she works out on a treadmill when it's too cold to bike. Women describe Melissa as athletic, and when they said it they'd mean it in the sense of "not pretty." Didn't matter to me. I've never been attracted to weakness.
It was almost eight miles to Bedford, and I was feeling it by the time we finally arrived. I called to Melissa as I caught sight of the house up ahead and we pulled the bikes into the woods. There was no traffic and no sign of anyone in sight. The Harringtons owned forty acres of land, which was mostly wooded. It had been dairy farm once. I wasn't interested in the house. I'd gotten a good look inside the house when during the night I spent ghost-hunting. I wanted a look around the rest of the property, particularly the foundation of an old barn that Dietrich had mentioned.
I'd filled Melissa in on the case the night before, but the bike ride had given her time to think.
"Chess, I thought you didn't believe in life after death or any of that stuff..."
I shrugged. "I'm open-minded, just hard to convince."
"And this has you convinced?"
"Not at all," I took a few steps toward the road to make sure out bikes were out of sight.
"But this is an interesting test case." I continued, "And one that doesn't involve dealing with phony psychics or new age wishful-thinkers. Either I heard something on that tape that had a very specific connection to a specific person, or else I didn't."
"Why do you think she's talking to you?" Melissa took the lead as we made our way along what looked like to be a trail into the woods.
"Not a clue. From what my psychic friends tell me, I'm the most un-sensitive person on the planet."
"Well, you aren't all that good at picking up on my moods and feelings."
"Yeah, that would make me a guy. Seriously, though. Somebody tries to read my cards or my tea leaves or whatever and they get this momentary confused look, and then they start bullshitting away. It never fails. I'd give up on having people try it on me, but I'm such a nerd magnet that I just keep making friends with people who are into that stuff."
Melissa turned and threw herself into my arms, giggling. "Nerd magnet! Cling!"
We kissed and she turned serious again.
"People tell me I'm sensitive to the other world. I have dreams about people I haven't heard from in months and they call me the next night. And I've dreamed about the people who used to live in my parents house."
"Really? You never told me about any of that."
"Well, you were always going on and on about what a big skeptic you were."
"Hey, I still think ninety nine percent of it is crap. But you can be the exception."
The trail crossed a stone wall and I spotted the foundation through some bushes to our right. We circled around looking for a way in through the briars and finally worked our way to the edge. It wasn't much. A rectangular pit in the ground lined with crumbling stone walls. There was some faded graffiti spraypainted along one side, just the letters BMH in shaky black. At one end of the pit were a few rusted beer cans and some cigarette butts. I climbed down and reached up a hand to Melissa who lowered herself half way down then took my hand and jumped the rest. It was only about six feet deep in the far end where the walls were mostly intact. The whole thing was maybe the size of a small garage, but I figured the original barn might have been bigger. It didn't need a foundation and cellar covering the whole structure.
The place had a moist and slightly sweet smell to it and I could almost imagine a hint of cow manure in that smell even though there probably hadn't been cows on the property in fifty years or more.
Melissa was poking a couple of the beer cans with a stick she'd picked up.
"Hey, Chess. What are we looking for anyway?"
"You're standing on it." I walked over to where she was standing and knelt down and scraped some leaves and dirt off the floor.
"See what's different about this half?"
Melissa nodded. "Floor's in a lot better shape."
"Richard Harrington was in the concrete business among other things."
'Wait. You think he buried her here?"
"Yeah. That's what I think. This is what I was looking for when I came here. Someplace where the cement was poured more recently. And here it is, right in the place that makes the most sense to look."
"So, what now?"
I looked down at the leaves and dirt and concrete once more then turned back to where we'd climbed down.
"Now we go home."
"Wait... That's it? You just confirm your suspicions and give up?"
"Nothing else I can do. We're not even close to the kind of evidence we'd need for a search warrant. Besides, the suspect is incapacitated, the trail is cold, and none of what I've uncovered so far really means anything. At least it won't mean anything to anyone with the power to help. I'm out of ideas."
Melissa looked frustrated, but she started walking back to the wall. I scrambled up and reached down to give her a hand. She was half way up and stretching her hand out to me when the stone she was holding came loose from the wall. She hit the floor flat on her back and she didn't move.
I think I probably only stood there like an idiot for less than a second, but it felt like way too long. Then I was moving, half stumbling, half jumping into back into the pit, calling out to Melissa, reaching to touch her.
She still hadn't moved. Not at all. No... I saw she was breathing. Okay, what next? Cell phone. Call 911.
I'd dialed the first two digits when Melissa's eyes opened. She screamed, all of her breath crying out until it died away in choking coughs and I knelt beside her paralyzed by the sound of it.
Then she rolled onto her side, still making little choking sounds, and I thought she was gonna throw up, but she finally seemed to recover a little and started to breathe in and out.
Our eyes met.
"Chess. I saw. I saw her. Saw him put her in the hole in the ground."
I reached my arms out and held her gently as her panicked breath finally steadied.
"Melissa, are you..."
"Yeah. I'm okay. Help me up."
I got her on her feet. It felt like I was shaking more than she was all of a sudden. I started to ask her something, but she turned to face me, her eyes desperate.
"Chess... When he put her in the hole and poured the cement. Oh God, Chess. She was still alive!"
Image and story by Rick Silva, copyright 2006