Justice of the Peace, Harvey ‘Boot’ Hornamer, arrived within two minutes—before the paramedics. It was almost as if he had been parked right outside, waiting for the 9-1-1 operator to dispatch the ambulance.
Boot looked like an old sun-leathered drunk you might find sleeping in a big-city alley. He did dress better than the drunk: Tony Lama Cowboy Classics and black Stetson, with a pistol strapped to his side and a badge pinned to his leather vest. But he and the drunk smelled about the same.
“How did you get here so fast, Boot?” said Ginger.
“I was in the area.”
“At this time of the morning?”
“I don’t sleep much.”
Ginger guessed he didn’t brush his teeth much either. She asked him to please remove the chewing tobacco from his mouth before entering.
He thrust a finger inside his jaw, dug out the big slimy wad, and flung it into the shrubs.
At least he wouldn’t be spitting tobacco juice into any of their flower pots, thought Ginger. She just wished he wouldn’t touch anything.
Boot stepped inside. “It’s Jack Jickles, ain’t it?”
“How did you guess?”
“Well, I seen a copy of your guest list for tonight. They’re all locals—which is interesting.”
“How did you get a copy of our guest list?”
“It wasn’t no secret was it?”
Ginger would be having a little chat with Barb. “No, not really.”
“Anyhow, I knew old Jack was here, and that he’s had several heart attacks, so…”
Boot labored his way up the staircase, following Ginger into Maggie Jickles room.
Jane, Barb, and Ethel tagged along.
Ginger was surprised to see that both windows were wide open. “Why did you open the windows, Maggie? It’s freezing in here.”
“I felt lightheaded,” said Maggie. “I needed some fresh air.”
“Feeling better now?” said Ginger.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Ginger closed one of the windows while Jane closed the other.
“Hey, Boot,” said Maggie.
“Maggie.” He nodded, still panting from his climb up the stairs. He walked over and looked down at the body. “Finally had the big one, huh, Jack? You knew it was coming, Buddy.”
“He just couldn’t give up smoking,” said Maggie.
“I told him it weren’t no use,” said Boot. “May as well enjoy life while you can.”
Boot coughed hard and deep, and his chest rattled like loose change in a clothes dryer.
“We had a good life together,” said Maggie, shaking her head. “I guess it was just his time to go.”
“So, were you with him when he died?”
“No. I went downstairs for a few minutes, and when I came back he wasn’t breathing.”
Boot eyed the CPAP machine on the nightstand. “He was wearing his CPAP mask?”
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“I’ve got one of them buggers,” he said. “Hardly ever use it though. The durn thing drives me crazy.”
“Jack had trouble with it at first, but he finally got used to it,” said Maggie. “You really need to use it, Boot. The doctor wouldn’t have prescribed it if you didn’t need it.”
“I know,” he said. “It’ll help me live longer.” He eyed the CPAP machine, then Jack, and shook his head. “Okay. It looks like natural causes. But we’ll send him down to the medical examiner anyway.” He glanced at his watch. “Time of death: 2:34 a.m.” He took out a small spiral pad and wrote it down.
“We’re getting out of here,” said Clare, opening a suitcase.
“Oh, come on, Clare,” said Bob, “we were gonna have a little fun tonight. I know it’s late, but—”
“—late? It’s the middle of the night, and there’s a dead body down the hall. And we can’t afford to be here anyway. If we go now, we can get a refund.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? I told you not to worry about the money.”
“How can I not worry, Bob? We haven’t paid our rent in six months.”
“Mom’s a softie. She would never kick us out.”
“Sometimes I wish she would. Then maybe you’d have to go out and get a job.”
“Me? What about you? Why can’t you get a job?”
“You know good and well why, Bob—because you promised me I would never have to work outside the home. That was the deal. I’d marry you and take care of the household, and you would bring home a paycheck.”
“Well, I’m working on something right now and—”
“—you’re always working on something. But it never pays anything, Bob. You need a real job—not another hair-brained scheme.”
“Oh, you just wait and see, Clare. This time I’ll be bringing it, Baby. Bringing home the old bacon. Yep—I’m about to hit the Mother lode.”
“No, really. And when I do, we’ll be moving out of Mom’s old garage apartment…”
“…into a big fancy house. That’s right, Clare—a brand new house. What do you think about that?”
“You’re a dreamer, Bob. And I love you for it, I really do. But you make me crazy.” She tossed the rest of their things into the suitcase and zipped it up. “Let’s go.”
“I need to make a trip to the john first,” said Bob.
“Can’t you hold it until we get home?”
“No, Clare, I can’t.”
“Quit acting like an old man, Bob. You’re forty-eight years old. It’s a five-minute drive. You can hold it.”
“No, Clare. I can’t.”
“Fine, but this place is creeping me out, so hurry it up.”
“Some things cannot be rushed.” Bob went into the bathroom, closed the door, and turned on the exhaust fan. He took out his phone and hit the speed dial. It rang six times.
“This better be good.”
“Sorry to wake you up, but I figured you’d want to know,” said Bob. “It’s done. Everybody thinks the house is haunted. Once the word gets around, nobody will want to come here.”
“Good job. Now don’t bother to call this number again. I’m throwing the phone away.”
“Only thing is…one of the guests had a heart attack and died.”
After a few moments, the voice said, “Who?”
The line went dead.