(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“You may be dealing with a killer who wants to keep a very ugly secret.”]
On Friday morning, three days after my visit with Miss Hattie, I decided to put a burr under my nephew’s saddle. After calling Jeff early to tell him I was coming, he arranged for me to receive a special pass at the front desk: a laminated white card with “VISITOR” in bold black letters. I clipped the card to my jacket pocket and began my way through the labyrinth of hallways and closed doors, the odour of stale doughnuts and half-drunk coffee slipping under the cracks of every door. Just when I thought I was going in circles, I heard my nephew’s voice and that guided me the last few steps.
As I reached his cubicle, he stepped out from behind the half-wall and warmly greeted me. “Aunt Dorthea! There you are. I’m glad you were able to find your way! Come on in and sit down. Would you like some coffee?”
“No, thanks, Jeff. I don’t drink coffee remember.” I settled myself in the same old office chair as before.
“Oh, that’s right,” Jeff said. “I forgot you’re a no-caffeine ‘nut’. You don’t mind if I mess around here a little and get myself one, do you?”
The question was really not necessary because he was already pouring himself a cup. Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he would actually not get himself a cup of coffee if I said he shouldn’t. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said, “but you really shouldn’t drink that stuff.” I smiled my best aunty-smile.
Jeff grinned at me, as he mixed cream and sugar in his coffee, but said not a word. Once his coffee, sugar and cream, were mixed, he sat down at his desk and took several sips, holding his cup as though he needed to warm his hands. Then he got down to business.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, Aunt Dorthea, but I have had time to learn a few things. The ambulance attendants said that Catherine was dead when they got there. They found her lying in her bed, dressed in pajamas, looking as though she were asleep.“
“So did they think she had died in her sleep?” I asked.
“Probably. But they weren’t sure.”
“When I was a little girl, that happened to a classmate of mine. She had some kind of a heart condition and no one knew. Her heart just stopped beating. So it’s certainly possible for a child to die in their sleep.” I raised my hand and added, “Although rare.”
“Of course.” Jeff took another sip of his coffee and continued: “But from the eye of an investigator, things were done strangely right from the get-go. Both parents were there, both distraught — “
“Who called nine-one-one?” I interrupted.
Jeff shook his head. “Not sure. Let’s see.” He put his coffee cup down and picked up a file folder from his desk and opened it. He browsed quickly through it and then said, “Apparently a woman called. But there’s no indication who she was.”
“I wonder if it was the mother.”
“Or she could have asked a neighbour.”
“Doesn’t seem likely, does it? I understand she kept to herself.”
“Possibly, but people do strange things in emergencies.”
I nodded. “So what else have you learned?”
“The parents didn’t go with the child’s body to the hospital, which everyone thought was odd. Catherine Fuller was officially pronounced dead by an ER doctor at the hospital.”
“Maybe the parents were just too much in shock. And they knew she was dead, so what was the point?” The words didn’t ring true, even as I spoke them. As a mother, I knew that I would have followed my child to the hospital. Still, I was trying to find simple explanations.
“Maybe,” Jeff replied. “But it’s been my experience — particularly in child deaths — that people don’t want to admit the obvious. They hang on to the belief that there’s still a chance for life, until the child is at the hospital and nothing can be done.”
“What happened at the hospital?”
“Hospital officials report that Mrs. Fuller’s father, Vern Engle, arrived almost at the same time the ambulance carrying Catherine did. He demanded that the child be left alone — no autopsy.“
“But a grandfather can’t demand that, can he?”
“If there’s no definite, obvious sign of foul play, parents do have quite a bit of power. And Vern Engle was acting on the behalf of his daughter and son-in-law. The authorities that night made no decision. Catherine’s body was taken to the morgue.”
“And?” I prompted.
“The next day, David Fuller came in. He was belligerent and pushy, insisting on gaining custody of the body. The family wanted a funeral — and soon — and they wanted Catherine’s remains immediately. They also brought their own family doctor in to take a look at the body and sign a death certificate. Although Fuller wasn’t a lawyer yet, he was acting like one!“
“That part certainly doesn’t surprise me. His arrogance appears to be well-known to everyone. But is it common for a family doctor to come in and sign a death certificate? Hadn’t one already been signed by the ER doctor?”
Jeff shrugged his shoulders. “Weird, isn’t it? I’ve never heard of such a thing. But the Engles seem to get away with a lot. There’s confusion about what happened, but the parents never gave the authorities the chance to find answers.“
“So the mother never changed her story?”
“No. From the very beginning, she insisted that Catherine had fallen at school and hit her head on concrete.“
“And did the family doctor agree with that?”
Jeff grinned. “Of course! What else did you expect?”
“Just checking,” I said.
“The doctor made a brief examination and concluded that there was a bump on her head and that might have caused internal bleeding in the brain. But it seems a little fishy. From the beginning this is what the doctor heard from the mother and the ambulance attendants. He just looked for what he was told to look for.“
“And since there was no autopsy, no one could prove otherwise!”
“Right.” Jeff rolled his eyes. “I’ll never know how these things happen.”
“Why do they?” I asked the question rhetorically, not really expecting my nephew to respond. He did anyway.
“Best explanation I can give is that the parents and the doctor said it was an accident, and no one questioned that.”
“Did the police do anything else to determine cause of death?”
“They interviewed neighbours, of course, and they checked with the little girl’s teachers who said they knew nothing about a fall.”
“Did Eileen Fuller ever change her story?”
“Never. The investigators assumed that Catherine had not told anyone at school about her fall, only her mother when she got home. Mrs. Fuller said that Catherine came home with a headache, told her about the fall, and said she wanted to go to bed.“
I shook my head. “I don’t get it. Did Eileen Fuller know nothing about head injuries? Did it not occur to her to get medical help or keep Catherine awake?”
Jeff shook his head and took another gulp of coffee. “Apparently not.”
I leaned back in the chair and it squeaked. “The whole thing does sound fishy. What mother wouldn’t know to seek medical attention for her daughter after a bad hit to the head? Why wouldn’t Catherine tell anyone at school that she had fallen? And, if she did, why wouldn’t the teachers have told Mrs. Fuller? In my experience, that’s standard procedure.”
Jeff agreed with a nod. “I have to admit that it does sound suspicious, Aunt Dorthea, but I also don’t know that anything can ever be proven. Without an autopsy, we’re screwed.“
“And Miss Hattie tells me the body was cremated.”
“Yup.” Jeff picked up his coffee cup again and realized the coffee was now stale and cold. He put it back down on his desk, which was already full of too many files and old paper coffee cups.
“So we’re at a dead end? Sorry, no pun intended.”
“It doesn’t look good, I’ll admit. But even if there was still a body to exhume, we’d have to have a reason, and so far we have nothing. Even if we’re suspicious about the doctor’s death certificate, or the mother’s actions, we have no proof — no suspicion, even — of wrongdoing.”
I moved in my uncomfortable chair, re-crossed my legs, and stared earnestly at my nephew. “Jeff, there is something wrong here, don’t you think? What about the neighbours who heard thuds and screams and cries and sobbing?”
Jeff shook his head. “None of the people in the building were reliable witnesses. Miss Hattie was the most vehement, but we had concerns that her hearing wasn’t good and she really had nothing definitive, just suspicions, particularly since she heard nothing on that day or that evening. There were concerns she’d never get to testify because of her age and, even if she did, the defence attorney would tear her to shreds on the stand.”
“I disagree with you there,” I said. “She seems tough to me. Did you know that she taught high school English just like me?”
Jeff smiled, knowing that that would have made no difference in her testimony. “No, I didn’t, but I’m not sure she would have ever testified, no matter how tough high school English teachers are.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because she told me that she didn’t want to. She wouldn’t give me her last name.”
I nodded because I understood. “Well, I guess she was a bit scared then. I suppose I don’t really blame her.” I hesitated. Should I tell him I saw Catherine’s ghost? I asked myself. “I think Miss Hattie is right, Jeff. I believe that Catherine is telling me to find her killer.”
Jeff tipped his head and looked at me with a smile. “What are you talking about, Aunt Dorthea?” He turned in his chair and looked directly at me. “Come on. Fess up. What haven’t you told me?”
I hesitated no longer. “Well, when I moved into my apartment, I was told that Catherine’s ghost lived there.” Jeff frowned and I could see his disbelief. I raised my hand and shook my head. “Now, wait a minute,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts either, Jeff. You know that I’m a straightforward and practical person. But I‘ve seen something twice, and I think it’s Catherine telling me to find her killer. You have to believe me. This isn’t silly ‘femininity’. Just call it intuition. It’s real. Ghosts come back when something is unfinished.”
Jeff leaned back in his chair, maintaining a totally skeptical look on his face. “Oh, boy, Aunt Dorthea, as a policeman, I deal with facts and evidence. Do you really believe you’ve seen a ghost? That it’s Catherine trying to tell you something.”
I sighed. “Jeff, I don’t really know what I believe, and I’m not really sure what I saw. Call it instinct. Call it feminine intuition. Call it what you want. I just think that that little girl may have been murdered, and I want her killer brought to justice.”
“Well, on that point we agree,” Jeff said. “The unsolved case detectives, however, say if there is no forensic or eyewitness evidence to go on, it’s a dead end. She isn’t even on their case load because it was never considered a murder case. However, they’d re-open it in a heartbeat if they thought there was evidence she was murdered. You can’t arrest someone without evidence that can be used in court. The only hope, they say, is if the mother admits that she saw or did something.”
This seemed like a logical next step. “I think I’d like to talk to Mrs. Fuller. And maybe Mr. Fuller, too,” I suggested.
Jeff frowned. “Aunt Dorthea, that’s probably not a good idea. You have no official capacity, and David Fuller can be aggressive and difficult, particularly towards women. He knows that he’s been a suspect in this case from the beginning, and he gets pretty hostile when officers talk to him about it.”
“I’ll be careful,” I said. “Maybe I’ll tell them I’m writing a novel. Maybe I’ll tell them I live in their apartment and sense their daughter’s presence.” Even as I said the words, I knew they sounded pretty lame. “Well, whatever I do, I’ll figure it out when I get there,” I added.
Jeff shook his head and sat up in his chair. He was clearly hoping his posture would intimidate me. “Aunt Dorthea, I know I can’t stop you from doing anything you plan to do, but I’m going to caution you again: watch your back. Remember, you may be dealing with a killer who wants to keep a very ugly secret.”
I nodded my understanding and then thanked my nephew for his help. As I walked back down the hallway, his final words rang in my ears: “You may be dealing with a killer who wants to keep a very ugly secret.”
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.