Authors: Hope Callaghan
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Senior Sleuths - Michigan
She and Brutus wound their way down the final few steps and headed outdoors. The large, green bin was just inside the fence, close to the road. She grabbed the top of the bin and hoisted herself up on the narrow edge. She leaned over the side to have a peek. Luckily, the light was at the top of the heap.
With a quick glance back at the house, Andrea pulled herself up and over the side. She landed inside the cavernous box with a dull
She grabbed the side of the bin to steady herself as she scanned the inside. It was bigger than it looked!
She bent down to grab the light when she heard the sound of car tires as they crunched on the gravel drive. Andrea lifted her head and peered over the top of the bin. It was her friend, Gloria.
Gloria coasted into the drive and pulled her car in behind Andrea’s. She climbed out of the car, her gaze focused on the sleek, shiny limo. Gloria had never seen a limo up close and never in the small town of Belhaven. Then she remembered that Andrea’s parents, who recently retired, were coming to town.
Funny, Andrea had never mentioned they rode around in a limo
, she thought to herself.
She shoved the car door shut and headed for the front door when she heard a small voice call out “Over here!”
Gloria swung her head around. There was no one there. She shrugged and took another step toward the front porch when she heard a dog bark.
It was Brutus. He was standing near the fence, not far from the dumpster.
She heard the small voice again. “Hey! I’m over here!”
Gloria lifted her gaze. The voice was coming from the dumpster. She made her way over to Brutus and bent down to pat his head. “When did you start learning to talk?”
“Gloria, it’s me! I’m in the dumpster!”
A slender hand with manicured nails popped up from inside the container.
Gloria stood upright and stared at the bin. “Andrea?” She made her way over to the edge. “What on earth are you doing in a dumpster?”
The hand disappeared, only to pop up seconds later. This time it was holding a small, antique wall light. “Can you grab this?”
Gloria pulled herself onto the side of the bin and reached for the light in Andrea’s hand. She set it on the ground nearby then pulled herself back up. She twisted her head to peer over the edge.
Andrea was in sight now, standing just on the other side of the bin.
“My goodness. How on earth did you get in there?” She looked around. “Better yet, how are you going to get out?”
Andrea scrunched her brows together. She hadn’t thought about that. She tucked a stray strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Good question…”
“I’ll go grab the ladder from the shed,” Gloria said. She took one hand off the bin when something inside caught her eye. “Hey! What’s that?”
Andrea looked behind her. A large chunk of paneling sat squarely in the center of the bin. It was a piece of wood paneling that had been on Andrea’s kitchen wall.
Andrea squatted down and leaned forward. She grasped the edge and pulled it forward for closer inspection. Taped to the back side was a painting.
She grabbed both sides of the paneling and held it up. The painting was of a woman with long, flowing dark hair. On top of her head was a bonnet. A large, black feather fanned the top of her hat. Tied around the woman’s chin was a long, white scarf that held the hat in place.
The painting was the top half of the woman’s body. She was wearing some sort of dark green dress. Draped over the top of the dress was a shawl. The shawl was the exact same color as the woman’s hat.
Gloria leaned in for a closer inspection. The woman in the painting was quite young. She had to have been in her mid-to-late 20’s. Her expression was solemn, but her bright blue eyes twinkled with mischief.
Andrea turned to Gloria. Her forehead crinkled. “This was part of my old kitchen wall.” Andrea had just had an entire wall removed between her kitchen and a small hallway that separated the kitchen from the library next door. A beautiful, marble bar area and barstools replaced the old paneled wall.
Andrea handed the piece of paneling to Gloria, who carefully laid it on the ground next to the gas light. “Let me go grab the ladder.”
She turned around just in time to see a tall, dark figure emerge from the rear of the house. It was a man dressed in some sort of uniform. Gloria remembered Andrea mentioning her parent’s butler or driver. His name was on the tip of her tongue.
The man stepped over to Gloria. He thrust his hand out. “You must be the infamous Gloria,” he said.
Gloria put her hand in his. “And you must be….”
“Pierce,” he offered. “Pierce Wright.”
Andrea’s head bobbed up and down from inside the dumpster. “Uh, can you do that later?”
Gloria let go of his hand. “Oh my gosh! I almost forgot about Andrea!”
She dashed over to the shed in the far corner of the yard and plucked the ladder from the peg, just inside the door.
Pierce was hovering over the side of the dumpster when Gloria returned. He took the ladder from Gloria, then hoisted it over the top and propped it against the inside wall.
He pointed into the bin. “
What is that?”
Gloria stepped on the small ledge next to Pierce and peered into the dumpster. He was still pointing. There, beneath a pile of wood paneling and some old 2x4’s was what looked to be a human hand - or what was left of a hand. More like protruding bones or quite possibly fingers.
Andrea followed their gaze. Her eyes widened in horror. She stumbled back and flattened her frame against the side of the bin. Her hand flew to her chest. “Holy smokes!” she gasped.
She scrambled up the ladder and jumped over the side, landing with a
on the manicured lawn below. She jumped to her feet and brushed the dirt and debris from her pants. “I-I think there’s someone in there.”
Gloria glanced back to make sure Andrea hadn’t been injured in the fall before scooching along the edge of the metal bin for a closer look.
Yes, it was most definitely a hand
, she decided.
Pierce pulled up beside Gloria and focused his attention on the inside. “Now what?”
Gloria gave Pierce a hard look. “We call the police.”
Officer Joe Nelson joined them on the edge of the dumpster and peered in. He kept one hand on his gun and flung his other hand over the side to steady himself. The muscle in Officer Nelson’s jaw tightened. He turned to Gloria. “Did you touch anything?”
Gloria’s eyes slid to Andrea. While they were waiting for the police, they had moved the chunk of wood paneling and the painting inside. Gloria wasn’t 100% certain what they had done could be construed as tampering with police evidence. After all, no one had technically touched the body…
Still, to err on the side of caution and make sure they wouldn’t be labeled as suspects, she decided it was best if she told Officer Joe about the painting.
“Well, there was one other thing. It’s inside the house,” she explained.
Joe nodded. “You wanna show me what you got?”
“Follow me,” Andrea said. Joe Nelson followed her in the front door. Gloria and Pierce brought up the rear.
Andrea’s parents were nowhere in sight.
They must still be somewhere around here,
Andrea pointed to the wall light. “I crawled into the dumpster to get that,” she told him truthfully. “The workers accidentally threw it away.”
Joe Nelson pointed to the painting. “You found that in the dumpster, too?”
“The crime lab will want to take a look at this.” He reached for the painting and looked up at Gloria. “I’m sure you’re itching to find out what this is.”
He went on. “Course, it’s not against the law for you to take a couple pictures of it.”
Gloria’s eyebrows shot up.
Why hadn’t she thought of that?
Andrea pulled her phone from her rear pocket. She turned it on and switched the screen to camera. She bent down and snapped a couple photos. “The light isn’t very good right here.”
Gloria picked up the piece of paneling and held it at an angle so that the light from the open front door shined down on it.
Andrea nodded. “Much better.” She snapped a few more photos.
A movement outside the front door caught Gloria’s attention. The crime scene van was pulling in the drive. She started to set the painting against the wall when Andrea stopped her. “Wait!” She leaned in, her face mere inches from the edge. “There’s something here in the corner!”
Gloria leaned over for a closer look but everything was blurry. She didn’t have her glasses on and couldn’t see what Andrea was talking about - but Pierce did. “Oh, yeah! I see it too!”
Andrea turned her phone back on and got a close-up shot of the corner.
The two investigators were out of the vehicle and heading for the front door. Officer Joe met them in the drive. Gloria was right behind him. She had every intention of finding out what was inside that dumpster!
The two men were covered head-to-toe in white. Their uniforms were white. On their feet were white foot coverings. They each pulled on a pair of white gloves as they walked. “Whatcha’ got Joe?” one of them asked.
Joe explained the situation as they made their way to the dumpster. “Yeah, the property owner was in the dumpster trying to get an old light that the construction workers accidentally tossed out. When she moved some stuff to the side, she saw what appeared to be a human hand – or the skeletal remains of one,” he added.
The two male investigators nodded. One of them pulled his tall frame up and over the edge of the container while the other investigator hovered on the outer edge.
The one inside the bin reached down and picked up a broken sheet of paneling lying on top of the pile. He set it off to the side. Below that was another board. He moved that board to the side and reached for the next. With each board he moved, he revealed a bit more of a hand. When all of the boards were out of the way, an arm was clearly visible.
Gloria’s heart thumped in her chest, growing louder with each piece of paneling the investigator moved. It was as if she was watching one of those archaeological digs on TV, except this wasn’t dirt – it was trash!
The investigator continued his slow, methodical task as he removed every little bit of debris from the center of the bin. It wasn’t long before an entire skeleton was completely exposed.
Gloria frowned down at the remains.
Why hadn’t the construction crew noticed it when they filled the dumpster?
Could it be that someone had placed the skeleton inside the dumpster
the workers were done? The thought hadn’t occurred to her until that exact moment.
Wouldn’t at least some of the bones be broken if trash had been tossed on top of the fragile skeleton?
When the entire skeleton was unearthed, the worker inside the dumpster removed a glove. He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a camera to take pictures.
The investigator on the outside did the same as he moved to different spots around the dumpster. Next, he took pictures of the outside of the bin, the yard, the house. Everything.
The second investigator slipped his camera back inside his pocket and walked back to the van. He pulled the side door open. He reached inside and pulled out a large, plastic bag and a long, narrow stretcher. He carried the stretcher and the bag back to the dumpster and handed the bag to the investigator still on the inside.
The man opened the bag and carefully slid the skeleton inside, starting from the skull and working his way down.
When the bones were in the bag, the investigator slid the long, thin stretcher under the bag. The remains must not have weighed much because he easily lifted the stretcher over his head and slid it across the top edge of the dumpster.
The second investigator grabbed the stretcher and carried it to the back of the van, where he carefully laid it inside.
The investigator inside the dumpster took a few more photos of the spot where the body had lain before he began to sift through the rest of the trash, searching for clues.
Gloria began to sweat. Not so much from the excitement of the investigation, but from the heat. There were few clouds in the sky and the sun was scorching hot as it beat down on her. Beads of sweat clung to her brow. She wiped them off with the back of her hand.
Pierce, who was right next to Gloria, pulled on the front of his damp shirt as he tried to fan his body. “Man, it sure is hot out here.”
Finally, the second investigator was satisfied there was nothing else in the bin. He climbed out, using the ladder that Gloria had pulled from the shed.
Officer Joe was waiting under a nearby shade tree.
The investigator removed the white cap that covered his head and nodded to the bin. “That all you got?”
Joe shook his head. He signaled the man inside. “There is one more thing…”
The men walked inside the front door and turned to the side. Propped on the wall, near the front door, was the painting. “This was on top of the pile,” Joe told the man.
The investigator nodded. He lifted the sheet of paneling and headed for the door.
Andrea’s shoulders sagged.
“We’ll return this after the lab is done examining it,” the man promised.
Andrea watched the investigators and Officer Nelson climb into their vehicles and back out of the drive. With one last look of longing, she quietly closed the door.
Gloria could hear murmured voices coming from somewhere in the living room.
“My parents,” Andrea mumbled under her breath. “Come meet them.”
Gloria followed Andrea into the living room. She lifted a brow at the sight of Andrea’s parents. Whatever she thought Andrea’s parents would look like – this was definitely not it.
Andrea waved her hand to the couple seated on the edge of the sofa. “Gloria, these are my parents, David and Libby Thornton.”
Gloria stepped forward. “I am so pleased to finally get to meet you both.” She extended her hand to Andrea’s mother first. The woman stared at it but made no move to grasp it.
Finally, she took Gloria’s hand in a limp grip. She quickly released it and then wiped her hand on the front of her black slacks.
Gloria stiffened her back as she watched her wipe.
Does this lady think I have cooties?
She did a small mental shake of her head and turned her attention to Andrea’s father. Her eyes were drawn to his ill-fitting polyester suit, which was at least two sizes too small. Gripped in his jaw was a thick stogie. He plucked the cigar from his perched lips and extended his hand.
His grip was firm and warm but his eyes were cold and calculating. Gloria’s stomach lurched as he scrutinized her. She felt as if she were some sort of fascinating bug he was studying under a microscope.
Gloria swallowed hard and looked away. Andrea wasn’t kidding when she said her parents were different.
The uncomfortable moment passed when Andrea turned to her parents. “Would you like a tour of the house?”
Without waiting for an answer, she headed to the front foyer and started up the stairs. Gloria was familiar with Andrea’s home so she skipped the tour and waited for them on the first floor.
The upstairs tour didn’t take long, and soon the three were back where they began. At the bottom of the stairs, they made a left and headed through the dining room, past the butler’s pantry and into the kitchen.
Andrea’s mother, Libby, stepped over to the kitchen sink and gazed out the window at the flowering gardens and rear yard. “You’ve done a lovely job on the house, Andrea.”
“Do you really think so?” It was obvious Andrea craved her parents’ approval.
Her father added his two cents. “It can’t hurt the resale value.”
Gloria frowned. She wasn’t sure if she cared for him. He was not what Gloria had expected.
Pierce put his arm around Andrea’s shoulder. “The home is beautiful, Andrea.” Gloria crossed her arms. Now
was more like what a father should say. Maybe she had the two mixed up and Pierce was really Andrea’s father.
They stepped into the library for a quick look around before heading down the small hall that connected the back of the house with the front entrance. Tucked away in the corner was a door that led to a small powder room. In the small hall, directly beneath the stairs was another door. One that Gloria had never noticed it before. “What’s in here, Andrea?”
Andrea tilted her head as she warily eyed the closed door. “That leads to the basement.”
Gloria lifted a brow. “That’s interesting. I always thought that was some sort of coat closet.”
Andrea shivered and rubbed the goosebumps that had popped up on the sides of her arms. “Actually, I’ve never been down there,” she confessed.
Gloria’s interest was piqued. She took a step closer. “And why not, dear?”
Andrea recognized the familiar look. The look that said:
I know there’s more to this story than what you’re telling me.
“It’s kind of spooky. I’ve made it down a few steps to take a quick peek, but that was all. It gives me the willies.”
Gloria decided she
had to see what was down there. She squeezed by Andrea’s father and grabbed the doorknob. “I’m going to have a peek myself if you don’t mind.”
Andrea recognized the look of determination on Gloria’s face that said she was going to go down there whether Andrea wanted to or not. Andrea nodded and took a small step back.
Gloria twisted the vintage glass door handle and pulled. The door creaked open with a low moan that almost sounded like someone saying “no.” For a fraction of a second, Gloria paused. She gave herself a mental shake and took her first step down.
With her right hand, she grabbed the handrail. With the other, she groped the side of the wall until her hand made contact with a light switch. She flipped the switch and a small, bare bulb illuminated the stairwell.
She took a second step down. It creaked almost as loud as the door itself.
Pierce watched Gloria from the top step. “I’ll go with you,” he offered.
Gloria turned; a small smile of gratitude covered her face. She was more than a tad relieved she wouldn’t be the only one going down.
Andrea’s parents, on the other hand, didn’t make a move. It was obvious they had no interest in checking out the basement. Not that Gloria was surprised, especially that her mother wouldn’t go down.
Andrea chewed the bottom of her lip and watched Pierce and Gloria’s descent. She was torn. If she ever wanted to see what was down there, now was the time! “I guess I’ll go, too,” she relented.
The steps were narrow and steep. At one point, Pierce had to duck his head to avoid whacking it on the slanted ceiling.
At the bottom of the stairs, the trio stopped. The room was dark. The air was damp and cool.
Gloria blinked, giving her eyes a few moments to adjust to the lack of light as she gazed around.
A bit of light beamed through a small, square window. Just enough for Gloria to spy a bare bulb hanging from the rafters.