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Over A Barrel – A Jesse Wolford Mystery

By Lorraine J. Anderson

Jesse Wolford stared at his assistant, Mara Jameson, then looked down where she was looking.  “You must be kidding.  Patrick Nelson is here? I didn’t even know he was sick.”

She glanced at Jesse, then back. “Just a sec, boss.” She looked like she was concentrating at looking at thin air. “He says that he’s not dead yet.”

Jesse blinked.  “I thought you just saw dead people.”

“Sometimes,” she said, frowning, “they aren’t quite dead yet.  But usually I don’t see them quite this far away from the hospital…” She concentrated, then got a look of alarm on his face.  “He says he’s not in the hospital.  But he is in danger, and he’s almost gone.”

“Does he know where he’s at?”

“He’s not sure.”

Jesse opened his eyes wide.  “Then what can we do for him?”  He felt a poke in his side.  “Ow!”  He glared.  “Was that Patrick?”

“No… Yes.”  She blinked.  “Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”  She turned her head away.  “He has a pretty good idea where he’s at.  He’ll lead us there.”

Which meant, of course, that he was going to have to close the office.  He was beginning to wish that he had a second employee.   He felt the poke in his side again.  “All right, all right, I’m coming.”

He grabbed his keys, and she grabbed her purse.  He walked out of the office, then he hesitated.  “Which way?”

“We need the car.”



They ran to the car and got in.  “Which direction?” 

“Left, he thinks.”

“Should we call the police?”

Mara winced.  “Do you think they’ll believe us?”

“Lt. Bowers might,” Jesse thought, then thought again.  “Maybe we had better wait to see what the situation is.”

“Turn left up here.  He thinks he’s near the railroad tracks.  He hears trains.  He thinks he’s in a circular container.”

“A barrel?”


They went a mile, and then Mara screamed “Stop!”  Jesse looked around.  They were in front of a warehouse, next to a railroad track.  “Inside.”

Jesse, getting out of the car, hesitated.  “Breaking in?”

Mara was already at the door.  “It’s not locked.” 

“We’re still breaking into somebody else’s warehouse,” he mumbled as he walked over the sill and looked around.  It was incredibly dark in there, and he pulled out his cell phone and turned on the light.  It didn’t project very far, but across the floor were about ten barrels.  “We may need a crowbar,” he said, and looked around, finding one leaning against the wall.  He grabbed it, flipping on a light switch at the same time, went across to the first barrel, tried to pry the lid up and failed.

“Let’s both try,” Mara said.  She must have caught the look on his face.  “Don’t go all male on me.”

Between the first of them, they got the lid off and peered in.  “Nothing.”  He glanced down the row.  “Is Patrick giving us any indication?”

“No,” she looked worried.  “He’s not here.”

He felt four pokes in his side, and Mara looked sharply at him.  “Let’s try the fourth one down.”  They went to the fourth barrel and pried off the lid — and saw the top of a head.  Mara reached down and felt his neck.  “He’s barely alive.  Call 911.”

He called 911, then the lieutenant’s personal number — he had to go out of the warehouse to get any bars.  It seemed forever for anything to come, but the emergency vehicles came in with the police, followed by Lt. Justin Bowers. 

“We seem to be meeting a lot lately,” the Lieutenant said as he approached the warehouse door, leaving space for the emergency personnel to run into the warehouse. 

Mara came out. “He’s looking better,” she said, “and his spirit has disappeared.”

Justin glanced at her, shaking his head.  “So that’s how you knew where he was?”

“Of course,” Jesse said.  He pursed his lips.  “If I had put him in the barrel, I wouldn’t have told you where he was.”

Justin grimaced.  “At this point, I’m not sure what I think, but you’re right, a suspect wouldn’t generally point the way to his victim, unless he has something to gain.”

Jesse smiled slightly.  “I gain more from a live client than a dead one.”

“So he’s a client?”

Jesse shook his head.  “You know I can’t tell you, Lieutenant,” he said, but he nodded slightly. 

“Right,” Justin said.  “You know, at this point, I think we should be on a first name basis, Jesse.”


Justin glanced into the warehouse.  “They’re taking him out of the barrel and placing him on a gurney.  Since they’re not covering his face, he’s alive for the moment.”

After a minute, they rolled him out, a mask over his face.  “He’s a short person?” Justin said.

“Probably how he lasted so long in the barrel,” Mara said.  Justin looked at her quizzically.  “Hey, I’m not scientific at all.  It just seems to me that being short, he would displace less of the barrel, so there would be more air.”

“Can you tell me more about him?”

“Well,” Justin said.  “I’ve know him for years.  He can be rather — sparky.”


“Short of temper — not a pun.  I think he’s angered a lot of people.”  Jesse grimaced.  “I can’t say that I blame him.  I’ve seen how people treat him.”


“Like a child.  I don’t know if you got a look at him, but he’s around forty, and he looks like a ten year old, at the most.  People would try to pick him up.”  He smiled ruefully.  “The advantage to that is that people would constantly underestimate him.  He’s one of the smartest people I know.”

Justin took notes.  “What’s his occupation?”

“He’s an actuary.” 

Justin looked a little blank.

“He studies risk probability for an insurance company.”

“Oh.  Doesn’t sound like a risky occupation.”

Jesse pursed his lips.  “Not normally.”  He took a deep breath and went on.  “I suspect that he had a sideline as a consultant in some… gambling endeavors.  He didn’t do it often, but every year, he would get a W-2G from various casinos.  Only one a year, so he was being cautious.”


“That’s a form that casinos use to report large gambling winnings to the federal government.  I believe he would play blackjack.”

“He would count cards?  That’s a way to easily get in trouble.  And it’s not like he’s the average joe sitting at a table.”

“Agreed.  Casinos don’t like it when players count cards.”

Mara looked between the two.  “I didn’t realize he was a gambler.”

Jesse quirked one side of his face up.  “You haven’t worked for me very long.  You would be surprised.”

“Well, I admit I only met him that once, before today.”  She shrugged.  “He was a charming guy, if a little bit of a womanizer.”

“That’s because you treat everybody the same.  He liked you.”

She shrugged.  “I like him.”

Jesse turned back to Justin.  “He’s a decent guy if you don’t get him angry.”

One of Justin’s men came up.  “Then watch out for your kneecaps?” Justin gave him a stern look.  The man flushed.  “Sorry, sir.”  He glanced at Jesse and Mara.

“You can talk in front of them.”

“We’ve finished inspecting the barrel.  There are two sets of fingerprints that we’ve found.”

Justin glanced at the two.  “Don’t we have your fingerprints on file someplace?” 

“I doubt it,” Jesse said.  He held up his fingers.  “I have very little fingerprint left… too many years of handling papers[M1] .”  He sighed.  “But you can try again.”

“It will eliminate the two of you as suspects.”

Jesse pinched his nose.  “You can try.”

“Let’s go to the station.”


“Well, that rather wrecked the day,” Jesse sighed, as he pulled away from the warehouse.  “I might as well take you home.”

Mara shook her head.  “I want to see how Mr. Nelson is doing.”

“Justin said that they had a guard on him,” Jesse said.

“But we’re the two who found him,” Mara objected.  “And besides, we were cleared.”

“I thought you didn’t like hospitals,” Jesse said, not unkindly. Since Mara saw spirits, she claimed that hospitals were too sad to visit.

She took a deep breath.  “I don’t.  But I want to visit Mr. Nelson.  It’s not often that I see spirits of people who are still alive.”

Jesse thought a moment.  “All right.  I would like to see him, too, and if you are there, he’s liable to be actually civil.” He turned at the next corner, heading for the hospital.

“He doesn’t like you?”

“I’m his CPA, not his friend,” Jesse said.  “I’ve told him some things he didn’t want to hear.”

 “Besides the gambling.”

Jesse considered a moment, then shrugged.  “No, that was most of it. I surprised him with a few tax issues, but there’s always some surprise involved with clients.”

Mara smiled.  “Which is why I would never be a CPA.  I’ll leave the IRS rules to you.”

“It’s like a puzzle.  What’s not to enjoy?”

“I’ll leave you to the math puzzles.  I’d rather straighten up the office.  And I don’t mind talking to people.  I know you would rather not.”

“I have to talk to people.  It’s my job.”

“I’ve known a couple of other CPAs…”


“Both, actually.  Alive and dead.  They liked to talk to people.  You like to help people, but you don’t necessarily like to talk to them.”

He had to admit that she was right, about other people and about him.  He had thought about going into corporate accounting, but he really enjoyed doing taxes.  And if doing taxes meant he would have to talk to people to do it, he would do it.

“I think,” Mara said, “and if you don’t mind, boss,” she gave him a quick smile, “that I should take the lead in talking to Mr. Nelson.  He seemed to connect with me when he was trying to get us to rescue him.”

“He did?”

“You remember, I could see him, don’t you?”  She grinned.  “He was annoyed with you, but he was smiling at me.  Dirty old man.”

Jesse wasn’t sure whether she was talking about Patrick or about himself and decided not to ask. 
“We’re coming up to the hospital.  Do you need to prepare yourself to go in?”  Dead people tended to congregate around hospitals.  It was the ghosts of children that bothered her the most.  She wanted to help all of them and generally couldn’t help any of them.

She sighed.  “I’m as prepared as I can be.”  Jesse parked and they sat for a second.  “Let’s go.”

They entered the doors and went up to reception.  “We’re looking for Patrick Nelson?”

“Are you family?” said the efficient looking man behind the desk.

“We’re the ones who found him,” Jesse said.  “He doesn’t have any family.”

“I’ll check.  Your name?”

“Jesse Wolford.  This is my assistant, Mara Jameson.”

He looked at the computer.  “The police have cleared you to go back.”

“Go back?”

“To Emergency. He hasn’t been cleared for a room yet.”  He pointed.  “Go down this corridor.  I’ll have someone meet you.”

They went down the corridor.  Mara looked from side to side.  “How are you?”

“A lot of people.  Most don’t notice us.  Some look at me, but it’s like they’ve lost all hope.”  She sighed raggedly.  “I often think that this might be limbo.”

“But… children?”

“No really young children here.  Young children seem to naturally gravitate to the light. It’s the ones who seem to have an idea of good and evil that are caught here.”  She glanced at Jesse.  “And, of course, those who have unfinished business.”

Jesse remembered the child — the unborn child! — who had prompted Jesse and Mara to save the child’s parents.  That was a weird one, and Jesse had suspected that there was more to that.  But he hadn’t dared asked Mara.

“I just wish that I can help them.”

Jesse looked over at his assistant.  “You’re a good person, Mara.  In spite of your fashion sense and pink hair.”

Mara stuck her tongue out.  The door in front of them opened, and Mara quickly pulled in her tongue.  “Friends of Mr. Nelson?”

“Yes.”  Friends might be pushing it, but Jesse didn’t think he had many other friends.  “How is he?”

The nurse grinned.  “Telling us that he doesn’t need to stay.  The detective is insisting, and so is the Doctor.  Maybe you can convince him.”

Jesse snorted. 

The nurse led them to a room where a loud argument was taking place.  “I don’t need to stay!” said a voice that Jesse knew was Patrick’s.

Jesse closed his eyes.  “Yes.  You do,” he said, walking in.

“You called my CPA?” Patrick said, looking at Lieutenant Bowers and the doctor.  He blinked at Mara.  “Wait a minute.  I remember seeing you at the warehouse.”

“Yes,” Mara said.  “You came to us to find you.”

The doctor blinked.  “What?”

Patrick closed his eyes.  “I don’t… “  He blinked again.  “I remember.  I was thinking, before I passed out, about who would care enough to find me and I thought about you.”

“I’m complimented.  I think.” Jesse said drily.

“And then I was at your office,” he continued, not seeming to hear Jesse, “and she was there.  And you couldn’t see me, but she could.  So I was trying to punch you and tell her where I was.”

Mara smiled.  “You succeeded.”

He looked her up and down and a slight leer came on his face.  “So I did.”

“I have a boyfriend, you remember,” Mara said.  “A large boyfriend.”

Patrick inclined his head and glanced at Jesse.  “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

She smiled at Patrick.  “No.  Of course not.  But I have a feeling that you came to Jesse for another reason.”

He stirred uneasily in his bed.  “My CPA?”

“Patrick,” Jesse said.  “You know that I won’t let something go.  You know that I’m honest.  I know that you have a few other friends who are not… into gambling.  Why not one of them?”

Patrick sighed.  “My other friends don’t realize… my problem.”

“You’re admitting it’s a problem?”

Patrick looked disgusted.  “It’s a problem when I end up sealed in a barrel in a warehouse.”

Jesse nodded.  “I’ve been telling you for years that gambling is no way to make money.  You have a high paying job.  Why risk it?”

Patrick sighed. “Yes.  I know.”

“Do you have any idea who might have done this to you?” Mara said quietly.

“Actually,” Patrick said.  “Yes.”  He instantly looked regretful.

“Are you scared?” Mara said.

“Wouldn’t you be?” Patrick said, quietly.  “I owe a lot of money to… this person.  I bet a lot of money on what I thought was a sure thing.”

Jesse glanced at the door, then at Mara.  “We need to get Justin involved.”


“Lt. Bowers.”

“No!” Patrick said, then he said quieter.  “No police.”

Jesse sighed.  “The police are already involved.  They’re not going to believe you sealed yourself in a barrel.”

Patrick looked down at the sheet, tracing a pattern.  He looked up.  “Just Lt. Bowers then.  Is he fairly flexible?”

Jesse closed his eyes.  “He’s… seen some odd things that have happened around me.  I think he’s fairly flexible.” 

Patrick grinned.  “Odd things?  You?  Mr. Conservative?”

“You haven’t seen me much since my wife died.  Just that one time.”

Patrick sobered.  “True, that.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“A sting.”


Justin shook his head.  “This sounds a lot like it’s skirting entrapment, and you know what police think about using entrapment.”

“Yes,” Mara said, “but we’re not in the police force.  You just need to come in when Jesse calls you.  And you need to  be in the area.”

Justin shook his head again.  “I don’t like it.  Why are you letting…”  He glanced at Mara and stopped abruptly.

“For one thing, Justin Bowers, nobody is controlling me, much less my boss.  Nobody is letting me do anything.  You may advise me, but I do not need to follow anyone’s advice.  Is what I’m doing illegal?”

“Well, sneaky and not precisely great, but not illegal.”

“I was hoping you would say that.”

Patrick walked out of Jesse’s back room.  “I was, too.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I was released from the hospital, and Jesse put a cot in the back room.  We didn’t figure I had better go home.”

“You know who did this to you?”  Justin shook his head again.  “Of course you do.  You realize that we could get the person for attempted murder, don’t you?”

“But,” Patrick grinned.  “Wouldn’t you rather get the guy who ordered the hit rather than the guy who did the actual deed?”

“Well…” Justin grinned.

“Great!” Mara said.  “I just need to get out my Halloween costume…”


“I need to see Mr. Dawson,” Mara said in a wispy voice.  She looked like a carnival mystic.  Did true mediums wear clothes like that, Jesse thought.  He doubted it. 

Actually, she fit right into the room.  Even though the office was well lit, the lack of windows and the dark brown paneling gave him the impression of deep, dark secrets nestled within it’s walls.  Which was probably true.

The secretary looked up with a frown.  “Mr. Dawson doesn’t take unscheduled appointments.  I must ask you to leave.”  She looked back at her computer. 

“He will want to see me,” Mara said mysteriously.

It took all of Jesse’s control to be quiet.  He was supposed to be the muscle — so to speak, for a short man — and the strong, silent type.  The secretary looked at him, dismissing him out of hand.  The problem was that he was used to taking control of the situation, because that was basically what he did at work.  Wrestling with problems, advising people, especially when they brought in financial advice from their brother’s cousin’s ex-mother-in-law.  He hoped he didn’t look as weak as he felt.

“And,” said the secretary, turning back to her keyboard, “why would he want to do that?”

Mara looked around dismissively, then nodded.  “This involves Mickey Hass.”

For the first time, she looked like she was paying attention.  “Let me see if Mr. Dawson can talk to you.”

Jesse heard a small snort under Mara’s voluminous skirt.   He felt like it was a bad idea.  For one thing, Patrick kept making nasty remarks until Mara threatened him with a personal ghost to haunt him the rest of his natural life.  Jesse didn’t think that she could do that, but the threat sounded real and apparently Patrick believed her.  He then complained about being the rear end of a horse,

Jesse was glad that Mara was wearing slacks under the skirt.  When he suggested it, she rolled her eyes and looked at Patrick meaningfully.  He had nodded at her.

The secretary, rather than calling on some sort of phone, led them to the back office.  Jesse wondered what would stop somebody from forcing their way back through the hall, then noted the open doors on the sides of the dark hall with big hulking men and women. Oh.

The secretary opened the door, then left. 

Mara swept into the big room, Jesse slinking in after her.  He wondered how Patrick was doing under the skirt. 

This was a bad idea.

Mara was speaking.  “Mr. Dawson, I presume.”

The man behind the oak desk stood up.  If Jesse had thought that the bodyguards were large, Mr. Dawson was larger.  It was clear that the man had clawed his way up through some sort of hell.

“And who may I be addressing?”

Jesse’s face remained passive.  That was the cultured voice of a gentleman.  I really must learn to leave my assumptions at home, he thought.

“My name is Belinda.  I am a psychic, and the spirits have told me to warn you.”

Mr. Dawson snorted, but his eyes widened slightly.  “The spirits, huh?  Miss Jones said that you used the name of Mickey Hass.  As far as I know, he’s living somewhere in the back woods of Maine.”

Mara listened.  “He tells me that your goons escorted him to the bottom of Long Lake.”

Jesse gulped a little.  He liked fishing on Long Lake, and the thought of a body at the bottom of the lake turned his stomach a little.

Dawson frowned.  “I haven’t heard of any body being found.”

She listened some more.  “He tells me that the ropes are about to loosen, and the body will surface.”


Jesse wondered how Mickey Hass knew that, if he were truly under the water.  Then again, Patrick had known that he was in a barrel.  Speaking of Patrick, he resisted the temptation to look at the back of Mara’s skirt.  Patrick wasn’t the most patient of men in the best of times.  On the other hand, he had a  firsthand view of Mara.  And he knew that if Patrick took liberties, Mara would have no compunctions of kicking him where it truly hurt, sting or no.

He wondered if Justin was taking notes about Mr. Hass.

Mara closed her eyes and threw her head back.  “Another spirit.  Another spirit is coming through.”  She groaned.  “No. No.  No!”

This was Patrick’s cue.  Jesse hoped he remembered his lines.  While Mara stood with her mouth open, Patrick’s voice, doubled, came out of a small speaker set into her bra.

“Noooo,” he said.

Dawson started back.

“Jeremiah Dawson, you killed me,” both Mara and Patrick said.

Jesse was impressed.  It actually did seem that the voices were coming out of Mara’s mouth.

Dawson sat down heavily and shrank into his deep red leather chair.  “Patrick.”

“You have nothing to say?”


“Why did you kill me?”

“It was business,” Dawson said.  “Just business.  You owed me.”  His eyes went from side to side.  The man really was freaked out.

“Hard to get money from a dead man.”

“There are ways,” Dawson said.  “Lawyers, forgers, unscrupulous officials…”. Now that he was in familiar territory, he sat up.

“Noooo.”  Patrick was truly hamming it up, and Mara wasn’t far behind him.  “I shall haunt you to rest of your days!”

Dawson dropped out of his chair and sank to his knees.  “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry I had you killed!  It was just business!”

Jesse blinked.  For a tough guy, he sure folded fast.  Then again, Patrick had said that the man was superstitious.

He heard a commotion at the front.  Some of the goons were emerging from the rooms, one with a gun in hand.  And it was pointing at them. 

“Justin,” Jesse yelled. “Get in here, now.” 

He expected the gun to go off at any minute, then the gun fell out of the goon’s hand, landing across the room.  The man looked at his hand, then at the gun. “Um, boss, I didn’t…”

“Who the hell is Justin?” Dawson said, looking up sharply.  Something apparently slapped him across the face.  Then again.  The goons started to retreat.

Four officers burst in.  “Watch out!” Jesse shouted.

Mara ran over and kicked him in the crotch, hard, leaving Patrick standing in the middle of the room.  Dawson groaned, fell over, and Patrick stood over him.  “Told you not to mess with me.”

“Hey!” Mara said

He glanced up.  “Or my girlfriend.”

She rolled her eyes.

Dawson looked at Patrick, then at Mara.  “Patrick’s… still alive?” he gasped.

“Obviously,” Patrick spat.

“Then how did you know about…”

“Is that true?” Justin said, coming up to Mara.

She nodded.  “Mr. Hass is here and told me.”  He turned to Dawson.  “He’s the one that’s been haunting you for the past month.  He tells me he’s been doing things to you.”

“That was him?” 

“Who do you think hit you in the face?”

Justin looked between the two sighed.  “Well, I guess we had better search Long Lake.  I’m not sure how I’m going to put this down on my report.”  The police had gotten Dawson up and handcuffed him.  “Take him out.”  After he left, he turned to the trio.  “You realize, he probably will still claim entrapment.”

Patrick smiled nastily.  “And while he may dodge a murder charge, I still kept documentation of my dealings with him.  And I’m sure once I open up with my paperwork, you may find that a judge will be more willing to offer you a search warrant.”

“We’ll see.”

Jesse looked at the officers.  “You came prepared.”

Justin smiled.  “I’ve learned.”

Mara looked startled.  “Justin, you might want to look at the bottom of Fisher Lake, too.”

“Really?”  Justin put his hand to his forehead.  “And how am I going to justify that expense?”

Mara shrugged.  “Not my problem.”

“Nothing is your problem.” Justin said.  “Would you like to go and have supper and talk about it?”  He looked startled at himself.

Mara giggled.  “I thought you would never ask.”

“After work. Unless you want to come to the station with me.”

Mara looked at Jesse.  He shrugged.  “Go ahead.  Work’s done for the day.”

They left, Justin looking stunned at himself.

Jesse looked at Patrick.  “Well,” Patrick said.  “We could find out where they’re going and spy on them.”

Jesse rolled his eyes.  “I think I had better take you home.”  He felt a pat on his shoulder.  “I obviously need some rest.”


“And how was your date?” Jesse said, looking up.

Mara looked troubled as she hung up her coat.


“Oh, it was great,” she said, automatically. 


“Boss,” she said.  “Do you believe in demons?”  She started crying.  “We need to help Justin.”