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Chapter 3
The Motel Meeting

-1-
A Plan with a Purpose

I decided to call Courtney’s dad and find out how she was doing. I almost hung up after the fifth ring, when Courtney answered. She told me her dad “freaked out” when they returned home, and grounded her.
“Why?” I asked.

“Dad was very upset about my finding a body, more than I was, and mad because I didn’t have my cell phone. I hate taking it while I’m bike riding. He calls to check on me and I have to stop my bike. That can be a real pain, believe me.” 

“He grounded you because you left your cell phone at home?” Sounded like over-reaction to me.

“He just wants to know where I am and what I am doing for a while. I agreed, because he seemed very upset. I think the cell phone thing was just an excuse.” 

I understood his fatherly concern, but still felt his reaction was excessive.

“Dad agreed I can deliver papers and do collections. He wants to see my receipts. I think he suspects that I’ve used my collections as an excuse for excessive bike riding. Of course, I have to take my cell phone.”

“Courtney, are you doing okay? I had a bad nightmare last night. What about you?”

“I was so exhausted! If I dreamed, I don’t remember. Besides, the whole thing still doesn’t seem real.”

“I know what you mean. Has your dad told you anything about her or what caused her death?”

“No, he won’t. Says I can wait until the paper comes out like everybody else. It’s not fair!” she whined.

“Well, he probably doesn’t want to upset you. I know from experience that reading something is different from seeing or hearing it. Distance comes from reading about an event. Your dad probably wants to put distance between what you saw and what actually happened.” “I guess that makes sense. Still, I want to find out! Don’t you?”

“I do, I admit, but we can’t do anything about that, can we.”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I plan to do some investigating.”

“Courtney, what would your dad say?”

“That it’s none of my business.”

“And he would be right!”

“But it is. Don’t you see? We found that body. It’s ours, in a way.” 

“Oh, Courtney, please. I do not want a body,” I said with a chuckle.

She laughed. “Not actually have it.”

“Well, what do propose we do?”

“We? Thought you didn’t want it?” She laughed again.

“Look,” I said, “what about this. I am sure you can wait one more day. I will call you tomorrow morning after you deliver my paper. That will make your dad pleased you have not pursued getting information, and we will both have the latest details. Right now, all we know is that we have a body. There might be a totally logical explanation for its presence in the park.”

“Sure! We see dead bodies all around every day!”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. What if she died in an accident?”

“Maybe the body fell out of a plane. I saw that on TV once.”

“Quit being silly! No major airlines have routes over Connors Station.”

“I’m teasing, Mrs. Wilson. Sorry.”

“Got you! Knew you were teasing,” I laughed.

Courtney joined my laughter. “Okay, we’ll wait. But call me as soon as you read the paper. Let me give you my cell number.”

“Just a second. Okay, I have pencil and paper.”

“It’s easy. You don’t even have to dial the area code. 598-8888.”

“That is easy! How did you get that number? Sounds like a business number.”

“Dad wanted a number I wouldn’t forget. Helps that he is the sheriff and has connections.”

“I guess it does. Okay, Courtney. So, we will get together tomorrow and talk then.” She hung up without a response.

I have a cell phone, but I only use it in my car or on trips, in case I have an emergency. I wanted Courtney to be able to reach me, but I did not know my own number; I don’t call myself. I hit settings, found my number, and jotted it on a piece of paper. Next time I saw Courtney, I’d make sure to give her my number, and until this was over, I’d keep my phone with me just in case.

When I awoke Wednesday morning, it was raining. My plastic wrapped paper lay in the carport by my side door. How thoughtful of Courtney, I noted, as I retrieved it and then put on the coffee and poured a glass of orange juice.

The article about our discovery made Courtney a local celebrity. Her picture on the front page, along with several pictures of the crime scene, accompanied an article providing a remarkable amount of information. George Gallagher, the editor, must have been up most of the night doing research to make the most of this unusual and interesting occurrence. The fact our corpse was mildly famous helped. Fingerprinting led to her identification as Dawn Davis, a missing off-Broadway actress with a promising career. Beautiful, in a plastic, big-city sort of way, she was not the type of person you would see on the main street of Connors Station.

I read that at twenty-one years old, Nancy Parker won the Misawa Miss Corn Contest, left her Missouri hometown, and headed for the Big Apple to make her mark and become famous. Apparently, the Providence of God led to her success, not her talent or her ambition. She managed to become an understudy in an off-Broadway play by an unknown author. The play became a surprising hit. When a freak accident hospitalized the star, one Jayleen Reynolds, Dawn Davis (Miss Parker’s stage name) rode her predecessor’s success to the top.

The same article mentioned her parents would arrive in town tomorrow and pick up her body on Friday, when the medical examiner would officially release it. Preliminary cause of death, a blow to the back of the head, the coroner ruled “suspicious.” Further information would not be available until the coroner finished the official autopsy.

Courtney, I am sure, disliked the attention her discovery of the body elicited. I understood Courtney’s desire to be indistinguishable and ignored. Anonymity can be useful, although, in this case, it was a problem for me. The paper made no mention of my presence, which made me mad. Gallagher, the editor, must think a twelve-year-old finding a corpse more newsworthy than a widow making such a discovery. It was as if I had not even been present. Courtney was not alone; I had been there, also.

When I get angry, I want to do something. Suddenly, I understood Courtney’s curiosity. I wanted to find out more about this woman. Courtney was out of school for the summer and I had plenty of time on my hands.

Since we lacked a morgue in town, it would have made logical sense to keep the remains at the county facility until the family made plans for transportation and internment. However, Connors Station can be a bit provincial at times. It was our body and we wanted to be the ones to return it to the family.

The big city newspapers and TV stations picked up the story. They referred to it as a murder and emphasized crime can even occur in a small southern town. Ferguson’s competition came from the mortician located at the county seat, as well as those in the closest big city. He knew the value of free advertising. He made sure the media included his offer of making the body “presentable for the family” and retaining it “in the loving, caring environment” of his facility until the next of kin arrived.

I wanted to contact the family before anyone else. I knew what the papers reported, but I wanted to know all about Dawn Davis. More information could provide the reason why she came to Conner’s Station and perhaps even the cause of her death.

It seemed a bit inappropriate for me to ask questions, but I had a plan using Courtney’s twelve-year-old curiosity and her paper route as an excellent cover. Although Cal’s grounding of Courtney seriously confused my plans and I worried about traumatizing Courtney further, I needed her. I called her cell phone; she didn’t answer. I decided to call her home phone and using the excuse of checking on his daughter if Cal answered. Just as my call went to the answering machine, Courtney answered breathlessly, “Hello?”

“Courtney, you didn’t answer your cell.”

“I only use it when I am away from the house. My social life isn’t active enough that I must remain available all the time. I have it primarily to keep my dad happy. Why did you call?”

“I read the article and think we need to talk. Can you come over?”

“I’m done with most my route. I still have three more papers to deliver to my closest customers.” Perfect, I thought. “I was so wet and windy that I came home to dry off. Riding a bike is fun, but not when it is raining! I’m not sure I want to go back out.”

“I’ve been thinking about our conversation yesterday and I have a plan. I like to make cookies on a rainy day – the heat from the oven takes the chill out of the air. I am going to make chocolate chip cookies and I could use someone to help me eat them. They will be fresh out of the oven.” What child refuses cookies, especially warm chocolate chip.

“And Courtney, don’t deliver those papers until after you see me, okay?”

She hung up without a response, very Courtney-like, I thought. I put cookie dough together as quickly as possible and popped the cookies in the oven just as I heard a hesitant knock on the door. She was more subdued than she had been in the park or during yesterday's conversation. However, it only took a few minutes, and the smell of hot cookies, to get her relaxed and talking.

“Wow, these cookies are awesome! I love chocolate chip, especially warm with milk.”

“I’m happy you’re pleased.

“Courtney, I think I know how you feel, because I share your sense of responsibility concerning Miss Parker. I know your dad is a good sheriff, but in a way, it is our body, yours and mine. We saw it first. I wonder if you would like to join me in doing a little investigating.”

“Are you kidding? Sure. But I’m grounded already and Dad would kill me!” She grabbed for a hot cookie. “I’m only here now because he’s out early patrolling. He seems to think he might find another body or something. Don’t worry, I left a note and told him to call me here if he comes home and finds me gone.”

“Careful, Hon, you’ll burn your mouth,” I warned as I poured her an ice-cold glass of milk. “Aren’t you still curious about why Nancy Parker visited Connors Station and if someone killed her?’

“Sure,” she mumbled as she took a gulp of milk to cool her cookie-filled mouth.

“Look, your dad is at work and doesn’t know you aren’t through delivering papers. We have a name and know she has a family, but what are they like? Are they rich, poor, attractive?”

“It would be good to see them first.” Courtney took the bait as easily her fourth cookie.

I poured her a second glass of milk before saying, “My guess is they will be at Morton’s Motel.”

“You don’t think they’ll stay at The Lodge?” Courtney said her mouth half-filled with cookie.

“I don’t think so. The Lodge caters mostly to relatives of citizens, businesspersons, and the few tourists who pass through on their way to somewhere else. All you need to do is look for a Missouri license plate.”

“What if I see more than one?”

“Look, we’re pretty far from the Interstate. I’m sure there won’t be more than one Missouri plate.” I responded.

“But how do I make contact?” She was going to do it.

“I thought you could use your three papers. You can knock on their door and offer them a sample copy.”

“I have to be home pretty soon. I left my dad a note telling him I’d be here, but what if he calls and I’m not available?”

“Do you have your cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“If he calls, I’ll call you right away and you can head on home.”

“Okay, I’ll do it, but I need energy for the ride.” Courtney grabbed up three cookies and finished her glass of milk.

“And Courtney, here is my phone number for my cell. I want you to be able to reach me easily.”

She glanced at the paper, closed her eyes for a moment, then wadded the paper and threw it at the trashcan, making a perfect pitch. I realized she had memorized my number. Oh, for the memory of a twelve-year-old. I had already forgotten the number!

While I waited for Courtney to return, I cleaned up the kitchen. I started the dishwasher and the phone rang. Cal seemed a bit miffed when I told him Courtney was no longer with me. I called her on her cell phone and told her to get home right away, hoping she could come up with a reasonable excuse for leaving my house.

“I have things to tell you, but can’t talk now. Dad is driving to the county seat to talk to the county coroner early tomorrow. I’ll come by and tell you everything then.” Again, she did not wait for a response, but hung up immediately.

I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house furiously to help time pass quickly. I cleaned out my refrigerator, using any palatable leftovers for a big pot of “refrigerator soup.” It smelled delicious – veggies, rice, a chunk of pot roast chopped into small pieces, the last of a bottle of ketchup and fresh parsley. After a dinner of a cup of soup, a small salad, and a piece of toasted, slightly-stale bread with butter and garlic, I got ready for bed.

The rain stopped during the day, but with evening, it started once again. Realizing sleep would come reluctantly; I picked up a new library book. After a few minutes, I gave up, got out a notebook, and started a list of details from Monday morning in the park. When I finished, I played mindless games on my computer nibbling on the rest of the cookies and sipping milk until exhausted. I slept soundly, and if I dreamed, no memories remained in the morning.

-2-
The Parents

Courtney arrived at 6:30 Thursday morning, breathless from her bike ride. I fixed cinnamon rolls, hoping I had enough milk for both of us.

“I spotted the Missouri license plate right away. The parking places have motel room numbers and the Parkers are in 24, the end room on the second floor. I wanted to make this look legit, so I knocked first on 22. I knew no one was in that room, because no car sat in the assigned parking space. I knocked on 23. Below, an old pickup with a Confederate flag on the front bumper sat in the numbered space. A crusty old coot answered the door, growled he was a day sleeper, and told me to disappear. I moved away from his door as he slammed it. Room 24 answered immediately, probably due to the noise produced by the guy in 23!”

Courtney found herself suddenly face-to-face with grief. Mrs. Parker mumbled a tentative “Yes?” through a tear-soaked tissue. Her reddened eyes made Courtney’s guilt kick in immediately. “I almost mumbled an apology and left,” she confessed.

Had I gone too far? Should I have sent Courtney to intrude on this woman’s solitary sorrow?

"Mr. Parker broke the silence,” Courtney continued. His anger appeared as intense as his wife’s sorrow. His gruff, “What do you want?” brought Courtney back to the reason for her visit.

“I spoke real fast. ‘Sorry to bother you folks. I work for the local newspaper and would like to offer you a free paper since you are out-of-town visitors. Here’s your complimentary copy.’ I held out the paper, rolled up so they would not immediately see the front page with the lead story about the death of their daughter. I thought they would read it later, but Mrs. Parker unfolded the paper, and started crying again as she turned to her husband and pointed out the story, ‘Frank, look, on the front page, all about Nancy’s murder.’

"I blurted, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’

“Mrs. Parker stopped crying and said, ‘Oh, my dear, how could you have known? She was lovely, wasn’t she? Frank, here’s that picture of Nancy as Miss Corn. Isn’t she beautiful?’” 

“Her husband did not respond. I couldn’t tell if it was grief over his daughter or anger at me. It was totally silent, and I stood there wishing I could just disappear, but I remembered you and for some reason did not want to disappoint you, so I stumbled on. ‘Yes, she was. Everyone in town is terribly distressed over this tragedy. We haven’t had a murder in Connors Station within my lifetime, although I’m only twelve years old.’ I called it a murder, because Mrs. Parker did. Looking back, I wonder why they assumed her death was not accidental or anything like that.”

“And then Mrs. Parker began talking and I didn’t think she would ever stop. ‘So young! It seems like just yesterday Nancy was your age. I just can’t believe she’s gone. Come in dear – I need a distraction.’ As I stepped in, her husband closed the door. She seemed out of it at first, but when she began talking, it was if a floodgate opened. It is surprising what I learned in only fifteen minutes.” 

Mrs. Parker’s obviously slanted account portrayed their “princess” who did no wrong. Her daughter was intelligent, beautiful, and talented. If she lived, it was obvious her mother thought Nancy would have been a rich, famous actress.

Courtney told me she escaped the Parkers when I called her with a fervent explanation that her dad expected her home. The television was blaring from the from the room next door when she left. The silent Mr. Parker offered to walk her down to her bike. Remembering the antagonism of the day sleeper, Courtney jumped at his offer.

Mr. Parker finally spoke to her when they left the room, “You’ll have to take what Irene says with a grain of salt. Nancy did no wrong in her eyes. She was my daughter, but she wasn’t perfect. Boys, that was her problem; boys and then men. I don’t know why. She liked their approval – their attention. If you ask me, she was in Connors Station because of a man. They find out who brought her here, they’ll know who killed her. Sorry for going on this way. I can only listen to that woman so long. Everything Nancy did was always perfect. She is so loving and so blind!” Leaving Courtney at her bike, he went back upstairs shaking his head and mumbling.

Courtney certainly found out a good deal. After she left, this time with cinnamon rolls, intended for her father, wrapped in foil (though I was sure he would never taste them), I thought over what I learned the past hour. If Nancy’s father was right, a man brought her to Connors Station and then killed her. But who and why? My mind began spinning with possible scenarios explaining Nancy Parker's presence in Connors Station and her death.

 


Comments

04/12/2017 11:31pm

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05/25/2017 1:02am

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Susan Box Mann, Writer