Chapter no 23

Hidden Pictures

The cop is young—he can’t be older than twenty-five—with a buzz cut, dark sunglasses, and enormous arms covered in tattoos. There’s not an inch of bare skin anywhere between his wrists and his shirtsleeves—it’s all Stars and Stripes, Bald Eagles, and passages from the Constitution.

“We were checking on Mitzi,” Adrian explains. “Her door was open but she’s not here.”

“So you what? You just walked inside? Thought you could take a look around?” He offers this theory like it’s preposterous, even though it’s exactly what happened. “I want you to open the door and slowly step outside, do you understand?”

I realize there are two more cops at the edge of the yard, stretching long ribbons of yellow tape from tree to tree. Farther out, deeper in the forest, I can see flashes of movement, jackets with reflective surfaces. I can hear men shouting discoveries to each other.

“What’s going on?” Adrian asks. “Hands on the wall,” the cop says. “Are you serious?”

Adrian is shocked—clearly, this is his first experience being frisked.

“Just do it,” I tell him.

“This is bullshit, Mallory. You’re wearing gym shorts!

You’re not concealing a weapon.”

But just the mention of the word “weapon” seems to escalate the confrontation. Now the two cops with the

yellow tape are walking toward us with concerned expressions. I just follow the instructions and do what I’m told. I press my palms against the brick wall; I lower my head and stare down at the grass while the cop pats my waist with his hands.

Adrian grudgingly stands beside me and plants his palms on the wall. “Absolute bullshit.”

“Shut up,” the cop tells him.

And if I wasn’t afraid to speak, I would tell Adrian the cop is actually being nice—I’ve known cops in Philadelphia who would have you pinned, cuffed, and facedown in gravel in the time it takes to say hello. Adrian seems to think he doesn’t have to listen to them, that he’s somehow above the law.

Then a man and a woman come walking around the side of the house. The man is tall and white and the woman is short and black and they’re both a little pudgy and out of shape. They remind me of my high school guidance counselors. They’re dressed in business attire that’s straight off the racks at Marshalls or TJMaxx, and they both have detective shields hanging from their necks.

“Aw, Darnowsky, come on,” the man calls out. “What are you doin’ to that girl?”

“She was in the house! You said the victim lived alone.” “Victim?” Adrian asks. “Is Mitzi okay?”

Instead of answering our questions, they separate us. The male detective leads Adrian across the yard while the woman encourages me to sit down at a rusty wrought-iron patio table. She unzips her fanny pack, removes a tin of Altoids, and pops one into her mouth. Then she offers me the open box, but I decline.

“I’m Detective Briggs and my partner is Detective Kohr. Our young associate with the circus tattoos is Officer Darnowsky. I apologize for his exuberance. This is our first dead body in a while, so everybody’s jumpy.”

“Mitzi’s dead?”

“I’m afraid so. Couple kids found her an hour ago. Lying in the woods.” She points to the forest. “You could see her from here, if these trees weren’t in the way.”

“What happened?”

“Let’s start with your name. Who are you, where do you live, and how do you know Mitzi?”

I spell my name and show her my driver’s license and then point across the yard to my cottage. I explain that I work for the family next door. “Ted and Caroline Maxwell. I’m their babysitter, and I live in their guest house.”

“Were you sleeping in the cottage last night?” “I sleep there every night.”

“Did you hear anything unusual? Any noises?”

“No, but I went to bed early. And it was raining hard, I remember that much. With all the wind and thunder I couldn’t hear anything. When do you think Mitzi—” I can’t bring myself to say the word “died”; I still can’t believe Mitzi is actually dead.

“We’re just getting started here,” Briggs says. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Not yesterday but the day before. Thursday morning.

She came to my cottage around eleven thirty.” “What for?”

It sounds embarrassing when I say it out loud, but I tell her the truth, anyway. “Mitzi was a psychic. She had a theory my cottage was haunted. So she brought over her spirit board—it’s like a Ouija board? And we tried to make contact.”

Briggs seems amused. “Did it work?”

“I’m not sure. We got some letters but they don’t make a lot of sense.”

“Did she charge you?”

“No, she offered to help for free.” “And what time did you finish?”

“One o’clock. I’m sure about that because Adrian was here, too. On his lunch break. He had to leave to get back to

work. And that was the last time I saw her.” “Do you remember what she was wearing?”

“Gray pants, purple top. Long sleeves. Everything very loose and flowy. And lots of jewelry—rings, necklaces, bracelets. Mitzi always wears lots of jewelry.”

“That’s interesting.” “Why?”

Briggs shrugs. “She’s not wearing any now. She’s not even wearing shoes. Just a nightgown. Was Mitzi the sort of woman who’d go walking outside in her nightgown?”

“No, I’d actually say she’s the opposite. She put a lot of effort into her appearance. It was a weird look but it’s her look, if you know what I mean.”

“Could she have had dementia?”

“No. Mitzi worried about a lot of different things, but her mind was sharp.”

“So why were you inside her house just now?”

“Well, this will probably sound stupid, but I had a question about the séance. We wondered if maybe the spirit was using a different language, and that’s why the letters didn’t spell anything. We wanted to ask Mitzi if that was a possibility. The back door was open so I knew she had to be home. Adrian thought she might be hurt, so we went in the house to see if she was okay.”

“Did you touch anything? Did you handle any of her possessions?”

“I opened her bedroom door. To see if she was sleeping. And I guess I muted her TV. She had it going so loud, we couldn’t hear anything else.”

Briggs looks down to my waist, and I realize she’s studying my pockets. “Did you take anything from the house?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then would you mind turning your pockets inside out? I believe you’re telling the truth, but it’s better for everyone if I check.”

I’m glad that Adrian kept the notes from the séance, so I don’t have to lie about them.

“Those are all my questions right now,” she says. “Do you have any information that might help me?”

“I wish I did. Do you know what happened?”

She shrugs. “There’s no sign of injury. I don’t think anyone hurt her. And when you find the body of an old person outdoors? Dressed in their nightclothes? Usually it’s some kind of medication error. They mixed up their pills or took a double dose. Did she ever mention any prescriptions?”

“No,” I tell her, which is the honest answer. I’m tempted to mention the needle caps and the tourniquet and the pungent odor of burned rope that trailed Mitzi like a cloud. But surely Briggs will discover all these things on her own, after a short ´tour of the house.

“Well, I appreciate your time. And would you mind sending over the Maxwells? Ted and Caroline? I want to speak to all the neighbors.”

I explain that they’ve gone to the beach for the day, but I pass along their cell phone numbers. “They didn’t know Mitzi well, but I’m sure they’ll help if they can.”

She turns to leave—then thinks better of it and stops. “This last question is a little off-topic but I have to know: Who’s the ghost you were trying to reach?”

“Her name was Annie Barrett. Supposedly she lived in my cottage. Back in the 1940s. People say—”

Briggs starts nodding. “Oh, I know all about Annie Barrett. I’m a local girl, I grew up in Corrigan, on the other side of these woods. But my daddy always said that story was a fish tale. That was his way of describing a trumped-up story, like a whopper.”

“Annie Barrett was real. I have a book of her paintings.

Everyone in Spring Brook knows about her.”

Detective Briggs seems inclined to disagree but instead she holds her tongue. “I’m not going to spoil a good story.

Especially when there’s an even bigger mystery out in those woods right now.” She hands me a business card. “If you think of anything else, call me.”



Adrian and I spend the next hour or so sitting out by the pool, watching the circus in Mitzi’s backyard and waiting for new developments. It’s clearly a huge deal for Spring Brook because the backyard is teeming with cops, firefighters, EMTs, and a man whom Adrian identifies as the mayor. No one seems to be doing very much; it’s just a lot of people talking and standing around. But eventually four somber-faced EMTs emerge from the forest carrying a zippered polyvinyl bag on a stretcher, and soon after that the crowd starts to thin.

Caroline calls from the shore to see how I’m doing. She says she’s already heard from Detective Briggs and she is absolutely “wrecked” by the news. “I mean obviously I didn’t like the woman very much. But I wouldn’t wish this kind of death on anyone. Have they figured out what happened?”

“They think it might be a medication error.”

“Do you want to know the strangest thing? We actually heard Mitzi yelling Thursday night. Ted and I were sitting out by the pool. We were having a bit of an argument, which I guess you already know. Then all of a sudden we heard Mitzi shouting at someone in her house. Telling them to get out, saying the person wasn’t welcome. We could hear everything she was saying.”

“What did you do?”

“I was all set to call the police. I had actually called 911 and the phone was ringing. But then Mitzi came outside. She was dressed in her nightgown, and her voice had totally changed. She was calling after the person, asking the person to wait for her. ‘I want to come with you,’ she said.

And it seemed like things were fine again, so I hung up the phone and forgot about it.”

“Did you see the other person?”

“No, I just assumed it was a customer.”

This seems unlikely to me. I don’t think Mitzi welcomed customers into her home after dark. The first time I went to see her, it was only seven o’clock at night, and she asked why I was banging on her door so late.

“Look, Mallory, do you want us to come home early? I feel bad that you’re alone, that you’re dealing with this by yourself.”

I decide not to mention that Adrian is seated poolside with me, studying the notes we collected from Mitzi’s house, still determined to decode them.

“I’m fine,” I tell her. “Are you sure?”

“Stay as long as you want. Is Teddy having fun?”

“He’s sad you’re leaving, but the ocean is a nice distraction.” I can hear Teddy in the background, very excited, shrieking about something he’s captured in his sand pail. “Hang on, sweetie, I’m talking to Mallory—”

I tell her to go have fun and not worry about me and I hang up the phone. Then I relay the whole conversation to Adrian—particularly the part about Mitzi’s mysterious late-night visitor.

I can tell from his reaction that we are both circling the same conclusion, and we’re too nervous to say it out loud.

“You think it was Anya?” he asks.

“Mitzi would never see a customer in her nightgown. Without her jewelry. She was way too vain about her appearance.”

Adrian looks to all the cops and EMTs still milling around the woods. “So what do you think happened?”

“I have no idea. I’ve been telling myself that Anya is nonviolent, that she’s some kind of benevolent spirit, but that’s just a guess. All I really know is that she was brutally

murdered. Someone dragged her body through a forest and dumped her in a ditch. Maybe she’s pissed off and wants revenge against everybody who lives in Spring Brook. And Mitzi’s the first person she went after.”

“Okay, but why now? Mitzi’s lived here seventy years.

Why did Anya wait all this time to go on her rampage?”

It’s a fair question. I have no idea. Adrian chews on the tip of his pencil and returns his attention to the jumble of letters, like they might have answers to all our questions. At the house next door, the circus is slowly winding down. The fire department is gone and all the neighbors have wandered away. There are just a few cops left, and the last thing they do is seal the back door with two long strips of yellow DO NOT CROSS tape. They intersect in the middle, forming a giant X, a barrier between the house and the outside world.

Then I glance down at Mitzi’s notes, and the solution is suddenly obvious.



“The Xs,” I tell Adrian. “They’re not Xs.” “What are you talking about?”

“Anya knew we didn’t speak her language. So she put Xs between the words. Like barriers. They’re spaces, not letters.”




I take the pencil from him and recopy the letters, placing each word on its own line.

“Now that looks like a language,” I tell him. “Something Slavic. Russian? Maybe Polish?”

Adrian opens his phone and inputs the first word into Google Translate. The results are instantaneous: Igen is the Hungarian word for “yes.” From there, it’s easy to translate the entire message: YES X BEWARE X THIEF X HELP X FLOWER.

“Help Flower?” Adrian asks. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” I think back to the drawings that I pulled from the recycling bin—wasn’t there a page of flowers in

bloom? “But this definitely explains why she’s using pictures. Her native language is Hungarian.”

Adrian opens his phone and takes a snapshot. “You need to text this to Caroline. It’s proof you’re not making things up.”

I wish I had his confidence. “This doesn’t prove anything. It’s just a bunch of letters that anyone could have written on paper. She’ll accuse me of buying a Hungarian dictionary.”

But Adrian is undaunted. He keeps rereading the words, like he’s hoping to find some deeper secondary meaning to them. “You need to be careful, you need to beware of the thief. But who’s the thief? What did he steal?”

There are so many pieces to the puzzle, my head is starting to hurt. I feel like we’re trying to jam a square peg into a round hole—or to force a very easy solution on a very complicated problem. I’m trying so hard to focus and think, I’m annoyed when my cell phone starts to ring, shattering my concentration.

But then I see the name on the caller ID.

The Rest Haven Retirement Community in Akron, Ohio.

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