Aha! I know what we need to do.
MARIA WYATT SAT IN A POWER WHEELCHAIR, her eyes red and swollen, a box of tissue clutched in her hands, the drawn curtains making the room dreary and claustrophobic.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” she sobbed. “I can’t imagine how I will get along without him. Jason was everything to me.”
We sat across from her on the sofa. One of her yellow-eyed cats sat on the cushion next to her, tail swishing back and forth as if it was waiting for me to make a wrong move.
“I can only imagine how you feel,” Ana said. “Jason was a great guy.”
“He was, wasn’t he? He made so much progress over the years.”
“Progress?” I asked.
Maria nodded. “Jason had a troubled childhood. He went through several bouts of depression before we married.”
“I didn’t know that,” Ana said. “You’d never tell by talking to him.”
“Yes, well, his determination kept him on track most of the time and we were careful with his medication, too. Jason also had me to contend with. taking care of me. That took his mind off his own demons, too.”
“What sort of demons?”
“I never knew,” she said. “There were some things Jason would never talk about. But something happened when he was younger. I never pressed him. We all have our secrets, ya know.”
She held a picture of her husband and stared at it for a few minutes, tears flowing down her cheeks. A dab with a tissue caught the last of them, when they stopped, as though the reservoir had run dry. When she regained her composure and placed the picture on the coffee table, and stroked her cat a few times.
“How can I help you catch the awful person who did this?”
“Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt Jason? Any enemies at all?” Ana asked.
“I’ve been wondering about that ever since deputy McCoy told me what happened. Everyone loved Jason. He was so kind and he’d go out of his way to help anyone. I can’t imagine why anyone would want him...” She faltered, grabbing another tissue. “Why would anyone want him dead?”
The tears started again.
“What about the other victims?” Ana asked. “Did Mr. Wyatt know any of them?”
“Not that he mentioned. Pine Mountain isn’t as small a town as you might think it is. I never met Jason when we were kids, and he never said much about the friends he had before we met.”
“Do you have any idea why he was up on ‘Possum Ridge?” Ana wrote something on her notepad.
“He has a couple of listings up there, I think. Maybe he went to meet a potential buyer.”
She shook her head when I asked if she knew who that potential buyer might be.
“For years, I handled Jason’s schedule, but I can’t do it anymore.” She paused a moment. “I can tell you one thing. Something was bothering him these last few days.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“He’s been agitated for a couple of weeks. Not just his depression, either.”
“Do you know why?”
Maria closed her eyes for a moment as if she was shuffling through her memory. “I wish I’d paid more attention. Just done something. Maybe we could have taken a vacation. He’s been wanting to take me to Myrtle Beach.”
Her eyes welled up and she dabbed at them with a trembling hand. That article I’d read jumped into my head and changed the subject for me.
“Your husband went to Pine Mountain High, is that right?” I asked.
Maria nodded. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I read a story last night about a Native American girl who was killed here around the time your husband was in high school. I’m wondering if he ever mentioned her?”
“You’re talking about the Forest Maiden, of course. Everyone knows that story.”
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t,” Ana said with a sigh.
I wondered if that was her way of telling me to back off.
But I pressed on. “I only asked because she may have been a classmate of Mr. Wyatt’s. And I’m curious to know if he ever mentioned that he knew her.”
“Like I said, Jason didn’t talk much about that time in his life. He liked to concentrate on the positive.”
“So you don’t know whether he knew her?”
She closed her eyes, and shook her head slowly, as she gathered her thoughts. “I do know he was afraid of her.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think that’s why he was so agitated.”
“Because of the Forest Maiden?”
She nodded. “I’ve never been much of a believer in fairy tales. When you have health problems, like I do, you tend to look at the world in the eye. Fairy tales distract you from how things really are.”
“Jason was different.” She tried to smile but didn’t quite make it. “He got up the other morning, white as a sheet. Said we had to get away from here.”
“What happened?” Ana raised a couple of fingers in my direction to let me know she wanted to take over the questioning.
“He heard crying outside his window during the night and thought it was the Forest Maiden.”
Ana and I exchanged a look. “Did you hear it, too?”
“No.” Maria shook her head and then went on. “Since I’ve been confined to this thing.” She patted the arm of her wheelchair. “We’ve used separate bedrooms. I get restless at night and don’t like to keep waking him up. My room is in the front of the house.”
“Do you mind if we take a look at his room?” Ana asked. “Just to be thorough.”
“Go ahead.” Maria swept an arm out, gesturing toward a hallway. “It’s the last door on the left.”
Ana thanked her and got to her feet. I followed, relieved to get away from those creepy yellow-eyed cats.
Jason’s Spartan room, with a spotless wooden floor and neatly made bed, held only a dresser and a small desk with a laptop computer.
Ana unplugged the computer. “We’ll need to check his listings and email. See if we can figure out who that buyer was. I’ll have Haskel pull his cell phone records.”
I nodded and went to the window, looking at the woods beyond. “We might want to check out there, too.”
“She said he heard crying out there.”
Ana sighed. “I thought we were past all that.”
I turned to Ana. “Did Jason Wyatt strike you as someone who was overly superstitious or out of his mind?”
“We’re not talking about a ghost living in his basement. And I think it’s safe to assume he was telling his wife the truth. I also think the killer didn’t pick Wyatt at random. He or she might have been watching from the woods, trying to scare him. Which means there may be footprints out there. A cigarette butt. Something.”
“That makes sense. Let’s take a look.” Ana must have been serious when she said she wanted a new pair of eyes on the case.
The woods seemed less ominous in the light of day.
There was such a simple beauty to the place I began to think Pine Mountain wouldn’t be a bad place to settle down. I was a big city guy, through and through, but a life without smog and traffic certainly had its appeal. If I was ever going to raise a child, a place surrounded by trees instead of concrete would not be a bad idea.
Funny how my perspective changed when my thoughts turned to Ana.
We spent several minutes searching among the trees just outside the Wyatt house but didn’t find anything useful, no sign that anyone had been out there at all.
But I knew my instincts had been right. Someone stood right where I was standing now, late at night, watching Jason Wyatt through his bedroom window, planning his death.
I’d put money on it. The question was why.
Killing people like this is a lot of trouble. Whoever is doing it has to think he has a good reason.
What did the killer think was justification for these murders?
I was sure that question had been plaguing Ana, too. And I was sure the answer was the key. This is one case where, just like in a novel, we had to find the why. If we could figure out the motive, we’d be a long way toward nailing the perp.
But maybe we needed to dig deeper. Maybe we should be going back further than three and a half weeks. Maybe, we had to solve another mystery before we could make sense out of this one.
And with sudden clarity, I knew exactly what we had to do.