Editor’s note: “Mantra for Murder” is Ann Arbor resident Linda Fitzgerald’s first novel – this is the book’s third chapter.
Background: Since the sudden death of her husband ten months earlier, Ann Arbor freelance writer Karin Niemi has felt half-dead herself. Now she’s just desperate enough to schedule a session with Dana Lewis, the city’s celebrity psychic. In Chapter 3, Karin and her best friend set off for Dana’s home. But as they’ll soon discover, Dana has been murdered. And their jaunt across town is actually the first stage of a long and bizarre journey that will lead them into the halls of academe, the surprisingly messy lives of Ann Arbor’s social and political elite, the esoteric realm of computer hackers and black-box voting, and – strangest of all – the mysteries of the afterlife.
Friday – November 12
I live on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, sixteen square blocks of funky clapboard houses painted every color you can imagine and some you can’t, plus a brick manse here and there, the occasional stucco-covered ark circa 1920, a couple of kit houses from the bygone Sears and Roebuck era, and a few Queen Anne whatnot’s. All of them are enhanced by unbearably quaint cottage gardens, cul-de-sacs, front porches to die for, and some of the bumpiest streets in the county.
As the first section of the city to be settled in the late nineteenth century, the Old West Side is under the vigilant eye of the Ann Arbor Historic Preservation Commission. Which means that almost nothing ever changes, not a door frame, not a kitchen window, nothing, at least not without bloodying a few high-minded bureaucrats in the process.
I guided Amelia along the narrow potholed pavement, zigzagging around parked cars on both sides.
As we crawled along past a three story Victorian in pale lavender with ivory trim and purply black shutters, I decided that Terry was right when he used to say that, sometimes, progress means keeping things exactly as they are. Although I have to admit, it would be nice to get the front porch repaired without having to run it by a squad of preservation commandos.
Heading toward the downtown area, I turned left onto Miller, a broad residential street that was gradually becoming a thoroughfare for commuters from the western burbs. Stopping at the Miller-First Street light, I looked over at Bixie.
“So where are we heading exactly?” Actually, I had a pretty good idea, but I wanted her to stop messing with my radio settings.
“Arbor Woods.” She kept fiddling with the knobs while she spoke. “Twelve-ten Leicester Drive.” She pronounced it “Lester,” the way a Brit would.
“My-oh-my. Sounds as if Dana Lewis is doing very well for herself.”
Arbor Woods is an enclave of handsome, sprawling, luxuriantly landscaped houses populated by senior faculty, deans, doctors, dentists, lawyers, real estate all-stars, the occasional CEO, and a smattering of well-to-do townies whose Ann Arbor roots go back for generations. While it may not have the glitz of the new high-ticket developments, it has something even better: understated affluence and quiet, self-assured class. In fact, Arbor Woods reeks with class.
The traffic light flicked green. Before starting my turn, I began the mandatory three-second count. One-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two…
Just as I was starting the final one-thousand-and-, a glossy green Subaru Forester sped across our path. I tapped the horn in a half-hearted way. Bixie didn’t bat an eyelash. Running red lights is a hobby with Ann Arbor drivers. The police crack down occasionally, but within a day or so everyone is back at it.
I turned east on Huron – part of a major artery that loops through the city, changing its name along the way. As it meanders toward the villages and small towns west of Ann Arbor, it becomes Jackson. But eastward, it skirts the northern edge of U of M’s central campus and takes the name Huron. Then, as it heads southeast and gradually becomes an anywhere-USA commercial strip, it morphs into Washtenaw. Go figure.
Avoiding Main Street, always a good idea, I turned right onto Fifth, then angled left onto Packard. Here and there, pedestrians – I like to think of them as the city’s sacred cows – stepped out boldly in front of traffic. A small herd of undergraduates dressed identically in jeans and dark windbreakers ambled by as if traffic lights were a mere suggestion.
I swerved to avoid a thirty-something decked out in grubby chinos, a Red Sox baseball cap, running shoes that had covered too many miles, and a designer dress coat that was probably cashmere. Adjusting the leather briefcase slung over his shoulder, he lowered his cell phone just long enough to give me a drop-dead look.
A few more harrowing encounters brought us to tree lined, hilly, if-you-have-to-ask-how-much-you-can’t-afford-it Geddes Avenue.
“Okay,” I announced, “from here on you’ll have to play Girl Guide.”
“Take Geddes to Belvedere, turn right on Addison, go two blocks, then left on Leicester, and you’re there. It’s a three-story Tudor, second house on the right.” Bixie still hadn’t found the radio station of her dreams.
By the time Amelia glided around the final corner, with prompts from Bixie, my stomach was practically volcanic and my mind was completely preoccupied with the hour to come. So once I’d made the final left turn, it took me a couple of extra seconds to take in the scene and slam on the brakes-just in time to avoid careening into one of two navy blue squad cars, property of the Ann Arbor Police, that were parked crosswise in the street to create an impromptu barricade.
An ambulance, another squad car and an assortment of dark sedans took up all available parking along the far side of the street, right in front of Dana Lewis’s handsome white and brown Tudor house. Mouth slightly open, eyes wide, I leaned forward on the steering wheel for a better look and tried to figure out what was happening.
“Oh my God. What is all this?” It was a raspy croak and it came from Bixie, who was straining against her seatbelt, gripping the dashboard with two white-knuckled hands. “What’s going on?”
She turned to me, almost as pale as her jacket, and began fumbling with the seatbelt buckle. Her voice was high and borderline hysterical. “Turn off the engine, Karin. Now. We’ve got to make sure Dana’s alright.”
Locking eyes with Bixie, I pitched my voice calm and low. “Just wait a minute. We can’t park here.” I glanced at a uniformed cop about five yards away who was looking back at me with more than a little interest. “Not without getting arrested or questioned or something. Hang on for a few seconds.”
I angled over to the left, did a three-point turn in a driveway and rounded the corner, back the way we’d come. I was still in the process of parking when Bixie clawed open the passenger door and bolted toward the tangle of cars and uniforms.
By the time I caught up with her, she was standing in a cluster of people – a mix of genuinely concerned neighbors and the usual assortment of ghouls and gawkers – just a few feet from a length of yellow tape that bordered the lawn in front of Dana’s house. Facing them on the other side of the tape was a cop wearing a dark blue uniform and an uncomfortable expression. About fifteen feet away, one of his colleagues was videotaping the crowd.
I took in the scene. Police cars. Crime tape. Ambulance attendants. A red light revolving slowly and unnecessarily on top of a dark four-door sedan, as if someone had forgotten to turn it off.
I had that odd dreamlike feeling that comes with mild shock. Things seemed to be moving more slowly than normal, everything was slightly unreal-as if I were a character in a play.
I’ll be damned, I thought. Just like in the books. Just like on television.
As I made my way over to Bixie, I could hear the guard-cop in conversation with a tall, thin man dressed in beige chinos and what was probably a Harris Tweed jacket. The man was punching the air with his unlit pipe, emphasizing every point as he droned on – “right to know”… “lived in this neighborhood for years”… “file a complaint.” Finally, he stopped to take a breath.
“Sorry, sir.” The cop held out his arms, as if to keep the crowd from moving closer even though no one was stirring. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so, good-looking in a moody Mediterranean sort of way. His attention was riveted on the tweedy neighbor. “There’s nothing we can tell you now. You’re wasting your time here. I’d advise you all to go home. There’s nothing to see, nothing you can do.”
He swiveled his head and his eyes happened to land on Bixie, who had worked her way through the crowd and up to the tape. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he did a doubletake in spite of all those months in the police academy.
I could hear Bixie’s voice, pleading. “Please, I’ve got to know what happened in there. The woman who lives in that house is a good friend of mine.”
Officer Mediterranean swallowed hard again but his training held. “Sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing I can tell you and nothing for you to do here. The facts will all come out in due time. However, if you are a friend, I’ll need your name, address and phone number. Same for her.” He nodded at me, then looked around at the crowd and let his voice rise. “Same for all of you folks. I’ll want your names, addresses, phone numbers.”
He let his eyes brush over Bixie’s face once more and pulled out a small notebook and pen, a little more eagerly than he might have done otherwise. We gave him the information he needed. Then I put my hand on Bixie’s shoulder. “He’s right. There’s nothing we can do here. We should go.”
“Your friend is right, ma’am. We can get on with our work a lot better if you’d leave.” He swung his head around, left and right. “That goes for all of you, as soon as I have your personal information.”
I leaned closer to Bixie. She was hugging herself, probably to stop the shaking that was getting more noticeable by the second.
“Listen,” I whispered. “I know how you feel, I really do. But right now I’m going to take you back to your house.”
“Make you some tea…”
“I said no.”
“… fix us both something to eat.”
“What part of the word NO don’t you understand?”
“… And a little later we’ll call Andrew. He might be able to tell us what happened here.”
For an instant, Bixie froze. Then she looked at me like a sleepwalker who’d just come to. “Andrew,” she repeated.
I put my hand on her back. She really was looking shell-shocked.
“Right. Andrew. As in your brother. The cop.”
Bixie gave a slow, zombie-like nod.
“Andrew. Of course. Good idea.”
With one last anguished look at the house, she let me guide her back to the car.
Linda Fitzgerald is a commercial writer, editor and communications consultant based in Ann Arbor. In “Mantra for Murder,” her first novel, she combines her love of mystery novels with her passion for politics, her fascination with metaphysics, and her abiding affection for Ann Arbor.