Cassandra Miller had just settled her two girls in front of the TV, giving each a bowl of dry Cheerios to munch on, when there was a knock at the front door.
She looked through the small peephole and saw a man and woman in uniform. The woman was holding a large manila envelope. Taking a deep breath, Cassandra opened the door.
“Mrs. Miller? Cassandra Miller?” asked the male cop.
Cassandra nodded and stepped outside, closing the door quietly behind her. “Yes. What can I do for you?”
“Ma’am, I’m Lieutenant Laura Ridgely and this is Sergeant Frank Rollins. We were hoping we could ask you a few questions,” said the female police officer. “Do you remember Tommy Boyle?”
Cassandra sighed. “Yes… the detective.”
“That’s right, ma’am. He told us you were instrumental in assisting him with the Dickerson case…”
Cassandra closed her eyes. The Dickerson case. Images of the young woman’s bones being dug up from a basement floor swam before her. She swayed slightly.
“Mrs. Miller? Are you alright?” asked Ridgely, touching her forearm.
Cassandra opened her eyes and stared into the woman’s face. It was a good face. Honest. “I’m fine. Detective Boyle sent you to me?”
“You do much of a business?” asked Rollins, pointing at the sign in the corner of Cassandra’s front window:
“Depends. Some weeks are better than others. Would you like to come in?”
“Please,” said Ridgely. “We’d like to show you a few things, let you handle them… We’re hoping you can help us, Mrs. Miller.”
She herded the pair inside, past the kids watching cartoons and into the kitchen. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No, thanks, we just want to ask – ”
Ridgely interrupted her partner. “That would be lovely – thank you. Sergeant Rollins likes his black, but I’d like a little milk in mine.”
Cassandra started the coffee and pulled what was left of a blueberry pie out of the refrigerator. “You’ll have to keep your voices down. I don’t want my kids hearing what you have to say.” She sliced the pie and pushed a plateful toward Rollins. “You look like a man who might be fond of pie, Sergeant.”
Ridgely smiled, noticing her partner’s paunch. Rollins eagerly took the pie.
After pouring the coffee, Cassandra sat down. “Well, I suppose you’re here to ask me to look at some photographs. That’s what Detective Boyle asked me to do last year. You know, I still have dreams about the Dickerson girl. I swore after helping Boyle that I’d never get involved in another murder case. I don’t think I want to look at any photographs…”
For a moment, Laura Ridgely concentrated on her coffee. She understood how Miller felt. While it was a part of her job, she’d never gotten used to looking at the photographs that crossed her desk daily – photographs of beaten wives, starved children, sociopaths, rapists. If what Boyle said about Miller was right, it had to be ten times worse for her.
She briefly studied the young mother. Her face was pale, drawn, and her eyes had a haunted expression. Did she already sense something? She was tempted to tell Miller to forget it, that they would find another way to solve the case.
But in those few seconds of weakening resolve, she remembered Jenna Hurst’s mother. Jenna was the latest girl to go missing over the past several months. Her mother’s hysterical pleas that the NYPD find Jenna had spurred Ridgely to consider Boyle’s suggestion to contact Miller.
When Boyle had first told her about Miller’s ‘talents,’ she’d been cynical. Now she was desperate. They needed a break in this case – and if Miller could help them, she’d put aside her skepticism. I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this; I thought Boyle was full of shit – and now I’m about to try to convince this woman to look at photographs of missing girls in hopes she can come up with something useful.
Coming to a decision, she pushed her coffee cup aside and tapped the envelope she’d placed on the table.
“Mrs. Miller, I know this is a lot to ask, but we need your help. Several young women have been reported missing over the past few months. They seem to have several things in common. We’d like you to take a look at their photos. We… um… well, we have a few of their personal items, things supplied by the families… we’d like you to look at those, too. Give us your impressions.”
Cassandra picked at the cuticle of her thumb, a nervous habit she’d never been able to break. “You think those girls are dead, don’t you?”
Rollins placed his fork on his empty plate. “Yes ma’am, I’m afraid we do. But we can’t seem to figure out the where, the who or the why of it.” He frowned. “We weren’t keen on coming to visit you. If you want to know the truth, I’ve never been one for this hocus pocus baloney.”
“Frank, please,” muttered Ridgely. She looked directly into Cassandra’s eyes. “Boyle told us that you were the one who told him to dig up the basement of Mary Dickerson’s next door neighbor. When they did, they found Mary’s remains beneath the dirt floor.
“How did you know that, Mrs. Miller? Boyle told us you held the photograph of Mary Dickerson in your hands… and you just knew. How did you know?”
The worried cuticle of Cassandra’s thumb began to bleed and she quickly brought it to her mouth, sucking away the little bit of blood. When it stopped bleeding, she sighed. “I don’t think I can explain it except to say I have a gift.”
“A gift?” repeated Rollins.
“Yes sir, that’s what my grandmother called it. She had it, too. It sometimes seems more like a curse. I don’t mind telling you that a lot of the stuff I see, I wish I didn’t… like that poor girl’s bones laying beneath that creep’s floor, just crying out for someone to find them. I sure wish I hadn’t had to see that!”
“I wonder,” said Ridgely, her voice thoughtful, “if your grandmother wasn’t right. In some sense, it is a gift. You brought justice to that girl, and closure to her family. If that isn’t a gift, I don’t know what is.”
“Well, Lieutenant, it’s a mighty expensive one.”
“The best gifts often are.” Ridgely pushed the large envelope across the table toward Cassandra. “Inside this envelope are the photos and personal effects we’d like you to look at.”
“Not now. I can’t look at those now. If I do this, I’d rather wait until my girls’ daddy gets home from work and can keep watch over them. If I start looking at those things and get upset, there won’t be anyone to keep track of my children.” Tears suddenly welled up in Cassandra’s eyes and she rubbed a shaky hand across her forehead.
“Dear God, I thought I was done with you people! I promised my husband I wouldn’t get involved in another case. You don’t know… you can’t… how much this sort of thing takes out of me.”
“But the readings,” said Rollins, “you do readings for people. Is that a gimmick or it is for real?”
“It’s not a gimmick, Sergeant. It’s part close observation and part feeling. I watch the people I’m doing readings for, get a feel for them based on their appearance, their body language… but the rest of it is intuition… the gift.”
“Do readings take much out of you?” he asked.
“Not like what you want! Seeing photos of dead girls, touching their stuff! It sends something cold right down into my soul. I feel the horror those girls felt, their fear… Sometimes, if I’m given a photo of a suspect, I see through his eyes what he’s done.
“The Dickerson case was the last straw for me. I still wake up looking through that boy’s eyes at what he did. I still hear that girl’s cries. I don’t know that I can go through that again!”
Ridgely reached across the table for Cassandra’s hand, hating herself for forcing the issue. “I know how difficult this must be for you.”
“No, you don’t! Not really.”
“Okay, you’re right,” conceded Ridgely, pulling her hand back. “There’s no way I can really know what you’re experiencing. But I’ll tell you what I do know: we need your help. Those girls need your help. Their parents need your help. Please, Mrs. Miller, won’t you help us?”
Ridgely watched Cassandra bring her thumb to her mouth, and again bite at the cuticle surrounding the nail.
“Mama, can we have some more cereal?” asked the towheaded, five-year old, standing in the kitchen doorway, dragging a worn teddy bear.
Cassandra looked at the little girl. “Leah, you get on back into the living room. I’ll bring you some juice and cereal in a minute, baby.”
“Cute kid,” observed Rollins, watching the child’s pajama-clad feet scamper back into the living room.
Ridgely then went for the kill. “You’re a lucky woman, Mrs. Miller, to have a sweet little girl like that. I bet you’d do just about anything to keep her safe.”
“Yes, ma’am, I sure would. My girls mean everything to me.”
Ridgely nodded, pointing to the envelope. “There’s a photo of a girl named Jenna Hurst in that envelope. A few days ago, I had to tell her mother that we haven’t been able to find out anything about her daughter’s whereabouts. That was real hard. You see, Jenna meant everything to her…”
Cassandra smiled bitterly. “You don’t play fair, Lieutenant.”
“No, Mrs. Miller, I don’t. And I suspect that if Jenna Hurst was your daughter, you wouldn’t want me to play fair, either. You’d want me to do anything I could, bully anyone I had to, if it helped find your daughter.”
Cassandra said nothing, staring at the bloody mess that was her thumb’s cuticle.
“Am I wrong, Mrs. Miller?” asked Ridgely, her voice hard.
A moment went by, then Cassandra looked up. She sighed heavily and rose to her feet. She picked up the envelope. “No, you’re not wrong. I’ll look at your photos. Damn you…”
©All Rights Reserved Kate Loveton and Odyssey of a Novice Writer
Note: This story is written in response to a challenge issued by Esther Newton to write a story with the random line I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this, I thought. I changed the punctuation a bit, but it was Esther’s line that gave me the idea for this next chapter in my Alphabet Soup Stories series. Esther’s funny, informative and interesting blog can be found here.