(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["Somebody got away with murder."]
The unusually warm September weather that had dominated my first few days in Vancouver had changed to cloudy and drizzly. When I awoke the next morning, my bare feet wanted warm socks as soon as my feet hit the floor. I showered, dressed, and ate my breakfast quickly, anxious to see if I could meet with Miss Hattie as soon as I could, but I didn’t think decorum allowed for a knock on her door earlier than ten a.m. I watched the morning news on the TV and read a few chapters from my book. Once the clock read ten o’clock, I left my apartment.
I had dressed conservatively but comfortably — a nice pair of black wool pants and a red sweater — so that I would hopefully make a good impression on Miss Hattie. I never wore much make-up, but I had put on a little lipstick. I had combed my short gray hair, but it was never much of a challenge to make my hair curl into a short bob as I had had a natural curl in it since childhood. Retired or not, I still paid attention to my appearance, just as my mother had taught me many years ago.
I left my apartment and walked down one flight of stairs. The hallway of the fourth floor looked identical to the fifth. I had no difficulty finding Miss Hattie’s door, as it felt as though I were knocking on my own apartment door. I tapped lightly but there was no response. I tapped again, beginning to worry that she might be either hard-of-hearing or still asleep.
While I was waiting, the door to the next apartment — the one directly below Mark’s apartment — opened. A man hiding behind the chain said, “What ‘cha want?”
“I’m just here to visit Miss Hattie,” I said. “She does live here, doesn’t she?”
“‘Course she does. What ‘cha want with her?”
“Nothing of your concern,” I said, as I smiled.
I looked down at Miss Hattie’s door knob and saw it start to move. The door opened but the chain remained on. The man next door immediately closed his, but no doubt he was listening to every word. A voice from behind Miss Hattie’s door said, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Miss Hattie?” I asked.
“Yes, what do you want?” Her voice was not harsh, but firm, like a mother lovingly scolding her child for a small infraction.
“My name is Dorthea Parsons. I live in five-one-three, just above you. I moved in about a week ago. I’ve heard from Mark, my next-door neighbour, that a little girl died in my apartment about ten years ago. Her name was Catherine. He said I should talk to you about her.”
“Well, even if it’s true, why do you want to know?”
“Because I’m concerned. I’d like to know what happened. If her death was suspicious, I’d like to know why. Maybe I could do something.”
The door closed, and I could hear the chain slide open, fall, and hit the door jamb. As these things happened, I wondered how much the next door neighbour had heard: no doubt all of it. Then Miss Hattie’s door opened fully and she extended her hand. “Well, come in, Mrs. Parsons. I’ve been waiting for ten years for someone to come back here and ask me more questions. It’s a wonder I’m still alive!”
“Please, call me Dorthea.” I stepped into the small foyer of her apartment. Miss Hattie reached past me and re-chained and bolted the door, then turned and headed, I presumed, to the living room. I slipped off my shoes and followed her even as she spoke.
“Follow me.” Although turned away from me, her voice was loud and clear. She proceeded down the hallway and, with her back still to me, she asked, “Would you like some tea?” She walked slowly, using a cane. She was dressed in a bright yellow dress, with matching yellow slippers, which went nicely with her silver-gray hair. The outfit seemed a bit too cool and springy for mid-September, but it still made me smile; it looked as though Miss Hattie’s mother had also taught her to always look her best. Miss Hattie’s face was full of wrinkles; she had put on a little powder and some lipstick which didn’t match her skin tone very well. I wasn’t an expert with make-up, but even I could tell that she had used too much.
“Well, yes, tea would be nice,” I said, as I followed her down the hall.
Miss Hattie turned into the kitchen, poured water into a kettle and put it on the burner to boil. She moved slowly but efficiently, one hand on her cane and the other getting the tea prepared. As I followed, I had noticed several framed photographs on the walls, and I stopped to look momentarily at them. They appeared to be family photographs, old and faded, but attractively matted and framed. The hardwood floors looked polished and were covered now and then by small area rugs. I stopped at the kitchen door. “What a lovely little apartment, Miss Hattie. You‘ve fixed it up nicely. The floor plan is, of course, identical to mine, but it’s amazing how different apartments can look because of how people decorate them. How long have you lived here?”
“Thirty years. I retired from teaching in 1973, and I’ve lived here ever since.”
“You were a teacher?” I was so pleased to realize that we had something in common that I realized too late how silly my question must have seemed to Miss Hattie. “So was I! What did you teach?”
“High school English,” Miss Hattie said, “though I don’t think my students ever learned much.”
“Oh, my,” I said, “we have a great deal in common. We’re both high school English teachers! I taught for 35 years! So why don’t you think your students learned much?”
Miss Hattie smiled. “Well, isn’t that amazing?” she said, rhetorically, not yet answering my question. “And now, here we are, both retired and living at Royal Manor.” I sensed a tone of irony to her voice, as though nothing ever fooled Miss Hattie. She paused while she opened up her cupboard and got down two cups and two saucers, none of them matching the other. It was as though she couldn’t talk and do the activity at the same time. Once she had the cups and saucers on the counter, she said, “I tried to teach my students, but a lot of the times they didn’t want to learn. I got very tried of trying to inspire them.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “I know,” I said. “Some things never change.”
The kettle whistled, and Miss Hattie placed tea bags in the cups. She poured the hot water over them and placed a spoon on each saucer. She handed one cup to me, but I picked up the second one as well and, together, we went into the living room.
Miss Hattie sat down in a faded-blue, stuffed chair. The room seemed almost empty, but it was warm and comfortable. On the walls were several Van Gogh and Renoir prints, and Miss Hattie had as many books as I had, all neatly lined up on her book shelves. She, too, had three windows facing west but today they weren’t letting in much light. Three healthy creeping vines sat on the window sills, no doubt wishing for more sunshine. In one corner stood a small TV. I felt that it was a comfortable room to be in, and there was not a speck of dust anywhere. I suspected that Miss Hattie had not changed it in the entire thirty years she’d lived here. She and I seemed to also have in common a desire to keep things organized and tidy.
I gave Miss Hattie her tea, once she was settled, and she pointed to an oak rocking chair for me to sit in. Then I continued our conversation. “I understand that everyone calls you Miss Hattie. Is that your real name?”
Miss Hattie nodded her head. “Yes, it is. Hattie Carlson. I never married, and the students began to call me Miss Hattie early in my career. I liked it, so I never stopped them. In those days, it was considered a bit liberal by my colleagues, but my students always said it with respect.” She pulled the tea bag out of her cup and placed it on the saucer.
“That’s nice,” I said, even while knowing that I would never have approved of my students calling me Miss Dorthea. I was aware that some teachers were able to develop that type of rapport with their students, but too often I found that casualness with one’s name usually meant no respect in the classroom. I didn’t know which category Miss Hattie fell into — the teacher who had no respect, or the teacher who was well-loved by her students — and I wasn’t about to ask for details. I kept the conversation light at first, so that hopefully she would tell me all she knew about Catherine. “Have you enjoyed retirement?” I asked.
“Oh, my yes,” she immediately responded. “I was worn out by teaching, even though I loved it. And the children had changed so much by the time I quit, I really couldn’t see how to go on. I started teaching in the late thirties and quit in the early seventies. My, oh, my, how children changed! No respect!” Miss Hattie frowned and I smiled at her.
“I guess nothing changes,” I said. “I started at about the time you quit and, by the time I retired last spring, I had certainly had enough of disrespectful teenagers. Earning their respect was hard work. A lot of students knew my reputation from older siblings and their friends, but in every class there would be at least 10% who had to figure me out and learn that I meant what I said.” We smiled at each other, knowing that we were kindred spirits, and for a nanosecond, each of us had a rapid recall of our long and varied teaching experiences, both the good and the bad.
“So, tell me,” I said, finally changing the subject around to my purpose for coming, “what do you know about what happened in my apartment ten years ago?”
Miss Hattie smiled. “I can imagine you have already heard a few things?”
“Yes, I have. And I’m told you know more about it than anyone.”
“Who told you that?”
“Oh, a nice young man. He sometimes brings me a loaf of bread or a bag of fruit.” Miss Hattie paused, as though she were collecting her thoughts. “Well, no one really knows for sure what happened up there. At least that’s what I think. The Fullers were a young couple, he was an aspiring lawyer and she was a homemaker. The little girl, Catherine, was just five years old and attended kindergarten nearby. No one paid much attention to them — just as no one pays any attention to anyone in this apartment building now. But I lived just below them and I heard a lot of things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, screams, cries, sobbing, whimpering, arguing, slamming doors. I think the child might have been spanked, or maybe even something worse was done. I could hear a woman making pleading sounds, and a man who shouted a lot. And I heard other voices as well, quite often in fact. They were often loud and argumentative.”
“What do you think was going on?”
“I’m not sure, but it never seemed right to me. I know that sometimes people argue and children get spanked or scolded, but what I heard up there” — she pointed with her cane to the ceiling — “was too frequent. It seemed violent and uncaring. When the police came around and asked questions, I told them all of this, but no one ever came back. I never understood why.”
I understood Miss Hattie’s frustration. Who among us has not sometimes had the feeling that the powers-at-be had no interest or concern for individuals? “Did you ever see the Fullers?” I asked. “Or did you ever talk to either of them?”
Miss Hattie stared off into space, as though she were trying to remember. “Yes,” she said, “I ran into Mrs. Fuller and her daughter in the elevator several times.” Miss Hattie turned and looked at me directly. “The child was always very quiet and obedient. She had beautiful brown eyes that just looked right into your heart. I could have taken her home and cared for her myself. She always seemed well taken care of, but she never said a single word to me, even though I would try to at least get a ‘hello’ from her. Mrs. Fuller seemed jittery. Her eyes moved constantly and she worked her mouth a lot, yet she said little. She’d be polite and smile when her daughter was complimented, but that was all.”
I felt chilled by the similarity of the description of Catherine and her mother and my own mother and me. I changed the subject. “What about Mr. Fuller?” I asked. “Did you ever have a conversation with him?”
“Yes, once. Also in the elevator. We got on together and we only rode the four flights up before I got off, but I told him who I was and that I lived just below him. I thought perhaps if he knew that someone could hear sounds from his apartment, it might make him think twice about what he was doing.”
I was amazed at Miss Hattie’s boldness. “How did he react to that?” I chuckled.
“Not too kindly. He scowled at me and asked, ‘So what?’ I wasn’t sure just what that meant, but he seemed defensive, kind of like he thought I was just an old busybody. I didn’t say anything more. The elevator door opened and I left without looking back. He wasn’t a friendly man.”
“Hmmm,” I mused. “This is all interesting, Miss Hattie, and it’s helping me to get a picture of the family. But what about the day Catherine died? Did you hear anything different that day?”
“That’s the part that’s so frustrating,” Miss Hattie replied. “I heard nothing, not a sound, except when the sirens came, and then Mrs. Fuller wailed her grief. But I didn’t hear any thuds or bumps prior to the ambulances coming, which is probably why no one thought the parents had harmed their child.”
“Are you aware of any official decision?”
“The paper said that it was an accident.”
“But you don’t believe that?”
“No, but I can’t tell you why. Just a feeling in the pit of my stomach, I guess. You know how in teaching you always knew when a child was lying to you? That’s how I feel about this. Somebody got away with murder. Maybe they didn’t intend to kill her, but they did. I can’t prove it. I just know it.” She paused a moment and then asked, “Would you like some more tea?”
It took me a moment to respond. Miss Hattie seemed so convinced that Catherine had been murdered, but I couldn’t see how anyone would ever prove it, let alone me, and it would seem that both Miss Hattie and television’s Judge Judy had the same ability which I had never achieved: to tell when someone was lying. When I realized Miss Hattie was staring at me, waiting for a response to her question about more tea, I said, “Oh, no, thank you. I really appreciate talking to you, but I shouldn’t take up more of your time. I should be going.”
Miss Hattie did not encourage me to stay. She rose from her chair and walked with me to the door, but as I slipped on my shoes, she asked me, “Are you going to do anything about this?”
I knew that she was genuinely concerned. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure what I can do, but I’ll think about it. I’m not a detective, just a retired schoolteacher. I don’t know if there is anything I can do.”
“Why are you so curious about this then?” Miss Hattie asked.
“Well, Mark told me about Catherine shortly after I moved in. And he also told me about her ghost.”
Miss Hattie showed no surprise. Apparently, she had heard the stories of a ghost in five-one-three. “Have you seen her?” she asked matter-of-factly, as if it were common every day to ask if someone had seen a ghost.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I did, but I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks on me. She seemed to want my help.”
Miss Hattie showed no surprise, only confirmation. “She wants you to help. I’m sure of it. Maybe you should try to get a hold of that police officer who I talked to at the time. His name was — let me see — Harding. Yes, Jeff Harding.”
I stared at Miss Hattie in complete, utter amazement. “Jeff Harding,” I repeated. “Are you sure that was his name?”
“Because I have a nephew named Jeff Harding and he used to be with the Vancouver Police Department. I wonder what the odds are that my nephew is the officer you spoke to.”
“It seems to me as though you’re getting signs wherever you turn,” Miss Hattie smiled.
"Will you come and visit again and tell me whatever you learn?" she asked me.
“Of course I will,” I promised. “Again, thanks for your time. I really must go now.” I rose from my chair and headed for the door. We spoke briefly once again at the door and then I stepped out into the hall. Miss Hattie closed her door, and I could hear her slide the chain lock on and re-bolt the door.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.