Sunday, February 7, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 25

Except for his forest green suit, Lester remained indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd.  He sat hunched in the first pew with his elbows propped on his knees, holding his face in his hands, and gazing down at the stained hard-wood floor.

Jan sat next to him, closest to the narrow aisle between the pews and the plastered wall, fanning herself with her memorial bulletin.  The preacher’s eulogy was late starting, and she stared up at the empty pulpit as if she could will the service into action.  The sooner it started, the sooner it would be over, and they could all escape this furnace that they called a chapel.

Laverne sat on the other side of Lester, closer to the center aisle.  With her arms crossed over her chest, she reminded him of a coiled snake.  She looked around at foreign faces with an expression of utter contempt, while muttering her judgements.

“Look at all these people.  They don’t even know Lucy.”

“This is a good turnout,” Jan answered across Lester’s hunched back.  “They came to show respect to Lucy and to the family.”

Laverne blew a puff of air threw her lips.  “That’s not why they came,” she said.

The women’s attention was drawn to the front of the center aisle as the last among the viewing line made their way to the casket, including Cassandra, who let out a great mournful howl.

“My baby.  Oh my poor baby,” she wailed.  “I’m not gonna let you go.”

Even Lester turned his head to watch as Cassandra crawled into the coffin.  She was bent at the waist, her top half enveloped in satin, her arms wrapped around her dead daughter’s torso, while her legs kicked the air.  Wilson and another man stood on either side of her, grasping her elbows and trying to pull her out again. 

“No, I won’t go.  I won’t go,” Cassandra cried.  “I have to stay with my baby girl.”

Jan ran over and helped coax her out of the box.  She wrapped her arm around her shoulders and soothed her with quiet words.  Rather than leading the hysterical woman to her pew, she led her back down the aisle and out of the building.

Lester observed the commotion without expression.  He had already paid his official respects to Lucy.  He had looked down at the little girl’s face, swollen with death and whatever chemicals Ernie’s people had used to preserve her for viewing.  He had reached into the casket to caress the turquoise scarf Jan had given her last Christmas, now used to camouflage her damaged neck.  He had felt a flood of anger at the thought of the car coming down on her and he had gripped the sides of the casket so hard that the blood left his fingertips. 

Beyond the open coffin lid, he had seen the object of his rage.  The Reverend was sitting at the end of the second pew, dabbing his forehead with a cotton handkerchief.  The man hadn’t bothered to show respect for yet another disposable member of his family.  He hadn’t bothered to view his handiwork.  But he’d had the nerve to show up at the funeral in yet another flagrant disregard for basic human decency.  He’d come to flaunt his freedom from the tendrils of the American justice system and to thumb his nose at the community that saw fit to judge him.

Lester’s eyes locked onto him as he made his way back to his seat—a seat almost directly in front of the Reverend.  He watched him dab the side of his face with the handkerchief and some part of Lester hoped it was more than just the temperature that made him sweat.  He hoped it was panic akin to that of a rat trapped by a pack of hounds, but sadly there was nothing in the Reverend’s eyes that indicated fear.  He was just hot.  And bored.  And he knew that there was nothing and no one in the chapel who could, or would, touch him.

As Lester sat down, he could feel the evil presence against his back.  It was the reason he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared at the floor.  He had to keep himself together, for Lucy’s sake.

The minister, Reverend Tisdale, rose in the pulpit to deliver the eulogy.  “Good morning,” he began.

The congregation murmured a response.

“Today is a sad day,” Reverend Tisdale said.  “Nothing can be as sad as the death of a child, but we must remember to allow some joy into our hearts because today the Lord calls another angel up to Heaven.”

A sprinkling of “Amens” emerged from the congregation, but the words sank into Lester’s belly like a dagger.  Joy was not an emotion he could feel, only the pain of loss.

“It wasn’t the Lord that sent Lucy to Heaven,” Laverne hissed. 

Only Lester and her mother Hannah, sitting on the other side of Laverne, heard the remark.  “Quiet girl,” Hannah said.

“How can I stay quiet when he’s sitting in this room?  Sitting in the pew right behind us?”  She looked at Lester.  “At the end of the pew, with a cushion of space between him and anyone else.”

“You’re interrupting the sermon,” Hannah whispered.

Lester tilted his head to the right, tried to see the Reverend with his peripheral vision.  He could see the man had his arm stretched across the back of the pew, just as relaxed as he could be.  He tried to shift his focus back to the preacher in the pulpit, but all he could think about was the man sitting behind him, the man who called himself a preacher, but who adhered to principles other than those espoused by Christianity, to selfishness and personal enrichment.

“I know we aren’t in regular services,” Reverend Tisdale continued, “but today I’d like to share a lesson from Genesis.  We are all familiar with the story of Cain and Abel…”

A mild restlessness seemed to pass through the congregation as individuals looked around at neighbors and shifted in the pews.

“We know that both Cain and Abel had delivered offerings unto the Lord.  We know that Cain had offered a share of his crops and Abel offered meat from his flock, and we know that Cain became very jealous when the Lord preferred Abel’s offering.  The Lord saw this and said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? If you only do what is right, will you not be accepted? Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  Reverend Tisdale paused to allow the last sentence to sink in, before he repeated it.  “Sin desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Lester had known Reverend Tisdale for many years.  He had started as a youth pastor at his church when Lester was a young boy, back before he started running around with friends and broke free from the routine of regular church attendance.

Tisdale, Lester recognized, was the type of pastor to use the Bible to try to influence his congregation in a very real way.  He sought not to teach general lessons or trumpet abstract ideals, but instead to apply a sermon to a specific person or problem within the community.  Lester felt as if the man was speaking directly to him.

If Tisdale was the angel on his shoulder, what did that make Laverne? Lester glanced over and saw her mumbling her argument under her breath.  He could see the muscle movement beneath her lower lip as she leveled her eyes at the man in the pulpit.  If Tisdale hoped to influence her, then she was having none of it.

“But we know how Cain responded.  He was a petty and jealous man, who wanted to Lord’s attentions all to himself, so he invited Abel to the fields and murdered him.  Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel?’ and Cain replied, ‘I do not know, Lord.  Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Reverend Tisdale gazed down to the second pew, where another Reverend was sitting.  Lester turned his face to the side and peeked back at the next pew.  He knew he couldn’t look at the man directly, but he had to see the reaction on Baxter’s face when he was called out in the sermon.  But Baxter only sat there, his arms draped across the back of the pew, looking up at the preacher—a real preacher—and wearing the same smug look on his face.

“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  The ground will no longer yield your crops and you will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ 

“Now Cain could not bear this punishment.  He was scared.  He begged the Lord to let him stay.  He thought people would seek revenge and come and kill him.  But the Lord said to him, ‘You are safe.  Anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over,’ and he put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”

Tisdale reached out into the air, directing his hand at Reverend Baxter. He made an x in the air with the pad of his thumb, delivering unto the Reverend the mark of Cain.

“So that’s the way it has to be,” Tisdale continued.  “That’s the way it always has to be.  Any man who kills his brother will be made to suffer, but it is not man’s judgement to give but God’s.  God will deliver his judgement.”

“That’s not good enough,” Laverne said.

As Tisdale moved on to the benediction, Lester turned to Laverne.  “What have you got to say?”

“How many more of us will die while we wait for the Lord’s judgement?  Maybe the Lord will act through one of us.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” Lester said.  People were standing now, moving out of the pews.  Lester shook his head.  “What is seven times vengeance?”

“What?” Laverne asked.

“Nothing,” Lester said, “Let’s go.”

They stood then, and Laverne turned to Baxter, still lounging in his pew, waiting for the crowd to thin, so he could stroll out of the chapel and into freedom.  The look of contentment on his face was more than Laverne could bare.  Tension entered her face and neck and she pointed down at him and cried out, “You killed my sister and you’re gonna pay for it.”

Baxter didn’t even look at her.  There was a slight shaking of his head, and he smiled. 


He never saw anything else, maybe a flash of movement, the blur of Lester’s green jacket, the glint of gun metal, and then nothing.  He never heard another sound.  The first bullet passed through his brain before sound could reach his ears, and he was already dead when the next two rounds entered his body.

Chapter 26 will post within two weeks


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 24


1977

A meeting took place in a smoke-filled room in a back office of the Jackson City Sentinel.  Marvin Rosenbush sat behind a desk, chewing on the end of a cigar.  In his cowboy boots, bell-bottom jeans, and Aerosmith t-shirt, he wasn’t the stereotypical image of a newspaper editor.  He looked too young both for the desk and the cigar, and to Jim—only a year younger, just as shaggy-haired and unshaven—it felt as if the inmates had taken over the asylum.

“What about the link to the voodoo group down in New Orleans?” Marvin asked.  “What are they called?”

“The Seven Sisters,” Jim said.  “I haven’t been able to find anything.  I think it’s a hoax.” 

Not many years ago, the editor of the town’s only newspaper would have been a middle-aged white man, probably bald, and wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and a button-down shirt and tie to the office.  Ostensibly, he would be a Christian, though he might hold the views of an agnostic or an atheist in private.  Never would he be a person in his early twenties and never a Jew.  Never a Jew!  But this was different world and people were starting to do things differently, even in the South.  It seemed to Jim that they were able to make it up as they went along.

Like Marvin, Jim failed to adhere to stereotypes.  He was pudgy both in face and body.  His hair was thick and curly, approaching a state of ‘fro, and he sported the earliest traces of a beard on the edge of his chin and jawline.

“It’s the kind of hoax that sells newspapers,” Marvin said.  He swiveled in his chair in little half-circles, anchored in place by his boots propped on his desk.  He blew a plume of smoke into the air above his head.

“If it’s not true then I don’t think we should report it,” Jim said. 

“I see,” said Marvin.  “You’re a moralist.”

“It’s just so random and stupid.  I never heard anyone talk about voodoo until this week, and now suddenly I’m hearing about it everywhere.”

“Well, if it is being said, then you can report that it’s being said.  That still qualifies as journalism.” 

Jim shook his head as he looked down at his notes.  “Okay, so what about the funeral?”

“Cover that too.”

“Right,” Jim said.  “Anything else?”

“Maybe you should bring a camera.”

“To a funeral?”

“I’m hearing a lot of talk.  Besides, it’s Ernie Smith’s funeral home, and that place has a sordid reputation.  There’s a chance something could happen.  We don’t want to miss an opportunity.”

“Don’t you think, with my complexion, I’m going to stick out enough as it is?  I don’t need a camera around my neck too.  Besides, the police will be there.  I seriously doubt anything will happen.”

“You’re probably right.”  Marvin held the cigar in his mouth, spinning it between his thumb and forefinger.   “But if, on the off chance, anything does happen, we’d have a major competitive edge if we had a camera there.”

Jim was right to think he would be noticed.  When he stepped into the funeral home the next day, it seemed to him that two hundred people turned their heads and stared.  His was the only white face among the sea of mourners.  He was the only reporter.  And he was certainly the only person carrying a bulky leather haversack.

“It looks like a purse,” he’d complained to Marvin when it was given to him.

“It’s the seventies.  Men where purses now.”

“Not to a funeral!”  His head dropped into his hands.  “Why am I arguing about this?  I’m not going to carry a camera and I’m not going to wear a purse.”

“You’re right,” Marvin said.  “It’s not a purse.  It’s a haversack.”

Jim tried to ignore the stares as he searched through the crowd for a place to sit.  Every pew in the chapel was jammed with people, fanning themselves with their bulletins. 

The heat outside was bad enough, but inside the brick building, without the benefit of air conditioning and stuffed with people, it felt like he’d stepped into an oven. Or Hell.  Already, water beaded on his forehead and he could feel the stains growing in the pits of his shirt.  His necktie gripped him in a chokehold. 

Beyond the pews, it was standing room only, with at least three muddled rows of acquaintances of the family and other assorted gawkers.  Jim thought he spotted an empty space along the back wall, and he headed in that direction. 

“Excuse me,” he whispered.   He pinned the haversack against his back hip with his hand as he slid through little openings in the crowd.   He monitored the annoyed glances and grimaces on the faces of those who allowed him to squeeze passed m, until finally he landed in a small patch of floor he could call his own.  It was just beneath a stained glass image of the arch angel Gabriel.

He viewed the chapel in the space between the heads of the people in front of him.  The pulpit stood on a podium on the right side of the room.  On the far left side was the organ, where some invisible organist played the introductory music.  In between, placed on high in the center of the back wall, hung a large wooden cross.  Below that, on the floor level, where it could be viewed by the walking multitudes, was the casket.  One section had been opened, so that those who could get close enough could view the deceased.  

He turned to his left toward a loud clanging sound and a ripple in the crowd.  Two hundred other heads turned in unison and watched as a police officer burst through the open doorway with his hand on his holster.

“It’s nothing,” someone said, waving him off.  “It was just a chair.”  The message passed in waves through the crowd.  “It was just a chair.”  “A metal chair.” “Someone dropped a folding chair,” until everyone was satisfied that there was no cause for excitement.  The policeman relaxed his shoulders and removed his hand from his firearm.  With order restored, he returned to his post. 

“Why am I even here?” Jim wondered.  “What does Marvin think will happen at a funeral?  Who would sully the memory of a sixteen-year-old girl on the day she is put to rest?” 

He already knew what he was going to write: people were sad, the preacher said a few words. (He would have to listen to the eulogy long enough to pull a quote or two.) Everyone paid their respects to the girl.  Everyone was sad.  The end.  It hardly qualified as news.

As the buzz of conversation faded, Jim noticed craned necks and heads turning toward the center of the room.  He bounced from toe to toe jockeying for a position to see what was going on up by the casket. 

A line had formed and stretched from the open coffin to the chapel’s entrance.  At the front of the line, someone wept loudly.  Jim locked in on what appeared to be the mother of the deceased leaning over her daughter’s body.  She wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, with a black scarf twisted around her neck.   She was theatrical in her grief.  She threw herself into the casket and wrapped her arms around the girl.  “My baby,” she cried.  “Oh my poor baby.”

No one should ever have to bury a child, Jim thought.  His own mother had said the same thing to him after they put his brother in the ground.  His eyes followed the woman, Cassandra, back to the second or third pew, where she disappeared from view.

Without the benefit of an unobstructed view, Jim’s imagination would have to fill in the blanks.  She probably fell against the red velvet cushion and covered her face with her arms.  He could still hear her loud sobbing.  Her husband would scoot next to her and stretch his arm around her, allowing her to bury her head against his neck and shoulder.

The Reverend.  Would he even show up?  He’d always maintained his innocence, but if you asked a hundred people in town who was the man that placed that girl under the axle of a ’74 Lincoln Continental, ninety nine of them would name the Reverend. 

The common narrative was that he’d placed her under the car, lined up her neck perpendicular to the rotor, so that it practically took off her head when he kicked away the jack stand, and the car came crashing down on her.  In all likelihood, she was already dead by then, strangled or suffocated.  Nobody goes under the car to change a tire.

As the last of the line finished paying their respects, the other reverend in the room, Reverend Tisdale, began his service.

“This is the hard part,” Jim thought, “Paying attention to a Baptist minister during a sermon.”  He tried to focus on the words coming out of the preacher’s mouth—something about Lucy going home to meet the Lord—but church wasn’t a part of Jim’s constitution.  His mind and his eyes traveled back to the place where Reverend Baxter was most likely sitting, holding his wife—the mother of the girl he had just murdered—, but he couldn’t see anything because of the crowd.

Jim rubbed the sleeve of his jacket across his forehead and sent drops of saline raining down to the floor.  “That’s it,” he thought.  “I’ve had enough.”  If Arnold wanted someone to suffer through a sermon in Hell, he should have done it himself.  Nothing here was newsworthy.  As quietly as he could, he slipped through the crowd and headed toward the exit.  The front doors were propped open to let in a breeze, and went through them like he was entering the Promised Land. 

Then he heard something, a scream.  There was a great commotion behind him, and suddenly there were more voices, more screams.  There was a quick clap clap clap of gunshots.  Jim ducked instinctively as he turned back toward the chapel.  The doorway swelled with people.  As soon as they hit the open air, their formation broke and they ran in all directions.  The noise rose to a hysterical pitch.

Jim’s reportorial instincts kicked in then.  “You have to go back in there,” he told himself, but for the moment his loafers remained cemented to the sidewalk.  He took a breath, and forced himself to move.  He would have to fight his way through the descending mob.  He bounced into the current of panic-stricken mourners like a surfer wading into the ocean.  All around him, people screamed and pushed and fought and elbowed passed, and for a moment, Jim felt he would be swallowed in the melee.  A smaller man would have been trampled. 

He made little progress until the crowd dispersed, but it wasn’t long.  The chapel evacuated in less than a minute.  A pair of uniformed officers waited with him, and as soon as there was room, they charged inside with pistols drawn. 


Jim’s hand slid into his handbag as he made his way into the chapel.  It looked like Marvin would get his picture after all.

Go to Chapter 25

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 23

1977

After the death of his friend Taylor, Lester decided to quit the pulpwood business.  The forest had a claustrophobic effect on him and stirred up memories of jungle warfare, and the sight of the Reverend stirred up thoughts of hatred and revenge. 

His brother Leonard had started a truck driving operation; he worked as an independent agent to various distributors and wholesalers willing to hitch their trailers full of goods to his semi and send him hauling across the country to retail outlets.  That’s how Lester started running timber from local contractors to the lumber mill. 

At first, he worried that this practice would bring him in contact with the Reverend, but for the vicinity Baxter ran a comparatively small operation and contact was limited.  Only three or four times during Lester’s first six months did Lester pick up a load at a location where the Reverend held the timber rights, and only on one of these occasions did Lester actually see him in person.  By then, the wood had already been secured to the trailer.  Lester was sitting in the cab, completed paperwork in the passenger seat beside him, when he noticed the Reverend standing beside his crew chief wearing his black suit and making sure the account had been paid.

Lester set the transmission in gear quicker than he should have, causing a grinding groan that pulled the attention of the ground crew his way.  Lester tilted his head just long enough for the Reverend to see his face, and Lester watched horrified as the old devil bared his teeth and tilted back, laughing and holding his stomach.  Humiliated, Lester managed to get the truck in gear.  He peeled a layer of red dirt off the road as he drove away.

His first few months he made only short runs, the farthest of which was to the paper mill in Prattville, but after he proved himself competent and reliable to his brother, he was assigned long hauls to places as far away as Kentucky and Ohio.  It was on one of these, just after unloading a trailer full of sweet potatoes to a regional distributer, that he received a message from dispatch to call his wife.

It was four in the morning, and he hadn’t slept the night before.  “What does she want?” he asked, speaking into a hand-held transmitter.  He bounced in his seat on an uneven patch of pavement.

“Don’t know, but she said it’s urgent,” the voice from the CB squawked.

Lester pulled off of the interstate at the next exit and located a pay phone at a gas station.  The sky was still black with night, and there was no one else around as he slid open the door of the phone booth.  He stood inside the cramped glass and metal box—a standing coffin was how he thought of those things—, patting down his pockets for dimes before he remembered he wouldn’t have enough for long distance anyway.  He spun the rotary dial for the operator and placed the call collect.  The phone rang four, five, six, seven times.  Just as he was about to slam down the phone, he heard his wife’s voice on the other end of the line, accepting the call.

“Hello.”

“Jan, it’s me.” He slid open the door of the phone booth to let in the breeze.  He liked the northern summer climate, which was much less oppressive than the wave of humid air he would soon be wading into once he made it back to Alabama.

“Did they tell you why I called?” Jan asked.

“They just said it’s urgent.” 

He could hear her take in a breath.  “Lucy’s dead.”

Lester pressed his forehead against the glass.  Under the light of the gas pumps, a stray dog scampered up and sniffed at one of the garbage bins.  “What are you talking about?”

“They found her on the side of the road like they did Taylor and those other ones.”

“Lucy?  She’s only fifteen.”

“The wake is this afternoon.  It’s at our house.”

He scratched at the peeling plastic cover that had once held a phone book before someone ripped it out.  A tube of metal linked it to the booth.  “Our house?  Why’s it got to be at our house?”

“Better to have it at the Reverend’s?”

Lester fell silent for a moment.  “Lucy.  Jesus Christ, I don’t believe it.”

“You coming home?”

Lester balled his hands into a fist and pressed his knuckles against the glass of the phone booth, applying restrained pressure. He wanted to smash the thing, free himself from the box he was in and send the shards raining down on his head, but he knew it would do no good.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’m on my way.”

The road turned into a blur of trees and tears and highway signs, coffee and caffeine pills, and always the memories.  He remembered going to his brother Robert’s house that first time after they brought home their baby girl from the hospital.  Lester brought her a stuffed panda bear.  “That thing’s bigger than she is,” Robert said.  Lester didn’t believe it at first until they put it next to the baby and sure enough it was almost twice as big.  They took a picture, and throughout the next year, whenever Lester visited they took a picture of Lucy next to the panda bear to mark her growth.

He remembered birthday parties, barbecues, and watching football games on television while the little girl played with her dollies on the floor.  “This is Amanda. She likes to sing in the Thanksgiving Day parade.

“That’s beautiful, Darlin’.  Just wait and show me during the commercial.”

.

Lester had already shipped off to Vietnam when Robert died a car crash.  He learned the news in a hole in the Kim Son Valley while the rain came down the poncho he had tented over him and made a sound like popping popcorn.

According to the letter from Jan, Lucy’s mother, Madeleine, an addict all her life, was in no condition to care for the child by herself, and no one knew what they were going to do with her.

Lester wrote back saying Jan should take her in, and she did for a while, but with Lester overseas and Jan overburdened already, he hesitantly offered his consent when he learned that another relative, cousin Cassandra, stepped forward and offered to care for the girl.  Cassandra had never been the most reliable person, but she was married to a good man at the time, and no one knew the extent of her problem with alcohol.  No one knew that within six months of taking Lucy, she and her husband would be divorced and she would be off on an extended binge.

Lucy was the first person Lester saw when he finally came home from the war.  “Daddy’s home,” he called as he threw open the front door and stepped into his own home for the first time in what seemed like forever.  He tossed his duffle bag to the floor and looked around for someone to hug, and there she was, sitting on the couch, reading a teen magazine.  She turned around and her face lit up, “Uncle Les!” she shouted as she spun off the couch and ran to greet him.

“Look at you, little girl.  You’re all growed up.” 

She jumped into his arms and it was like she was the little girl he and Jan never had.  “I missed you, Uncle Les.  I’m so glad you’re home.”

He hit a rainstorm outside of Knoxville.  Drops splashed down on the windshield so big and so fast the wipers couldn’t keep up with them, and the road dissolved in a watery blur.

His muscles tensed up.  His arms straightened and his hands ached from gripping the steering wheel.  Despite the pain and discomfort, he barreled down the highway at 80 mph.  All he could think was, “That poor little girl.”

It was that thought that saved him.  He thought about Lucy and others like her and it occurred to him that he would be no better than the Reverend if he drove his rig through the back end of a station wagon going 40 mph through the storm.  He downshifted, dropped his speed to sixty, and a good thing too; a string of taillights lit up in front of him as traffic came to a standstill.  He slammed brakes and came within centimeters of tapping the bumper of the car in front of him.  If he hadn’t slowed down when he did, he would have killed everyone inside.

Four hours later, tense and dazed and grumpy from the road, he arrived at his home to find his driveway overflowing with cars that stretched around the block.  He had to park his semi up the street and walk.

When he opened the front door, he found a crowd of people dressed in their Sunday clothes milling about his home, chatting, and sampling casseroles.  His appearance generated a slight ripple through the mob: a few turned heads, a few tilted in greeting, but mostly his presence went unnoticed. 

A circle of solemn faces occupied available seating in the living room. An elderly couple eating from a prepared plate, a young boy looking uncomfortable in an oversized suit and bored out of his mind, and the back of teenage girl’s head that caused him to freeze and stare.  She was sitting in the same place where Lucy had sat when he came home that day from Vietnam.  For a moment, he was sure it was Lucy and it was enough to erase the misery of the last sixteen hours.  Then she turned and he saw another girl’s face and the misery fell back on him all at once like a bag of cement.  It was Hannah’s girl, Laverne, now looking at him with a mix of confusion and judgement, and for Lester it was as if Lucy had died all over again; at that moment he knew then that he would never see her again.

He passed through the crowded living room in a daze.  A line seemed to form in front of him and he worked his way through the gauntlet, shaking hands, nodding, and mumbling short phrases without registering to whom he was speaking.  The house was so thick with people, he couldn’t even get to his room to change out of his road clothes.  Everywhere people were chatting, even laughing, as if this was merely another social occasion, an opportunity to get together and exchange pictures of their kids, as if a young girl’s life hadn’t been stolen away. 

The dining room table was populated with casserole dishes.  A line of acquaintances, extended family members, and other people he only saw at weddings and funerals circled the table.  They held plates in one hand and used the other to scoop up heaps of green bean casserole and squash, and stab their forks into slices of pork loin, while they babbled on about church gossip or the end of the basketball season.  Lester hadn’t eaten in no telling how many hours but the thought of food revolted him.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and Hannah weaved around him.  She scooped an empty dish off the table and replaced it with a bowl of coleslaw.  She offered Lester a sympathetic glance, but before she could speak one of the men standing around the table started chatting her up about her coleslaw. 

Lester stood there, soaking it all in, trying to make sense of any of it, but just shook his head and squeezed through the crowd, heading for his bedroom.  He needed to get away, to find a place where he could become himself, maybe lie down for a while, but he found that his bedroom, like the rest of his house, had been confiscated.

Several people crowded around someone in a vanity chair.  His wife ran up to him, wrapped her arms around his body.  “I’m so glad you made it home.”  She pulled back, looked at him.  “It’s been crazy.”

Lester looked around the room.  “I can see that.”  He spotted Cassandra sitting in his wife’s vanity chair, gazing solemnly into the mirror.  “What’s she doing in my bedroom?” he asked.

“I’m sorry.  She was making everyone crazy.  I had to get her away and this was the only place I could take her.”

He could tell by the way her head was angled that she could see him in the mirror.  He walked up behind her.  “Cassandra,” he said. 

Her shoulders sagged dramatically and she released a self-pitying sigh. 

“Where is your husband?” Lester asked.

“Went to see his lawyer,” she said.  “Wouldn’t even stay with his own wife during her time of need.”

Lester shook his head in disbelief.  Why would she want that man to stay with her, knowing full well—How could she not know?—that she was likely his next victim.  She needed attention more than he needed her life, he supposed.

Lester turned to his wife and gave her a look to let her know he had to get away from this woman.  He made it as far as the hallway, where several men approached him.  Lester recognized his cousin Charley, a stocky man in a sleek gray suit and bowler hat.  Charley was too old to be traveling in groups, but behind him were two of his friends from school: Wilson and Cecil.

“Lester, I’m glad we found you,” Charley said.  “We need to talk.” 

“Have to walk and talk,” Lester said.  “Can’t get no privacy around here.” 

They headed toward the living room. “I’m sorry about that little girl, Lester.  I know how close she was to you.  My heart goes out to you.”

Lester nodded gravely.  “Thank you, brother.  That means a lot to me.”

“Listen, this may not be the time to mention this,” Charley said.  “This is Lucy’s wake and I hate to pull attention away from one who deserves it, but Wilson here has something I think you need to hear.”

Lester looked up at Wilson.  He was a large man with a large afro, wearing a rust-colored corduroy suit.   Lester knew him as one of Charley’s friends that Lester’s Aunt Charlotte didn’t want coming around the house because he smoked reefers and made inappropriate comments at the supper table.

They entered the living room and suddenly everyone seemed to need to refill their plates, as the people in the room scattered, leaving all the sofas and chairs empty for Lester and his entourage. 

One child had to be pulled out of the room by the arm.  “But I don’t want any more meatballs.”  “You get on outta here,” his mother snapped.  “Go play outside.”  Only Laverne remained, sitting on the couch and listening intently to the conversation. 

“Tell ‘em what you saw, Wilson,” Charley said as they settled into a set of metal folding chairs.

“Now I’m normally not the type to go around snitching on folks,” Wilson began.  The men nodded. “But this here is different.  This is about an innocent little girl, and that shows that he crossed a line.  I ain’t scared of the Reverend.  I don’t give a shit if he does worship with the Seven Sisters.  I don’t give a shit if he kneels down to the devil himself…”

“Just tell the man what you saw, Man.”

“Well,” he continued, “the other night I was driving to my girl’s house, over there in Angelwood, and I came up on a car that looked like it was broken down.  So, I slowed down, you know, because I’m always willing to help out a brother in need.  It looked like someone was changing a tire, but as I got closer I noticed a couple things that put me on alert.  There was a man bent down and it looked like someone was lying under the car, so I thought there was someone hurt, and I was definitely going to stop and help, but then I seen who it was bending over her.  Now, I didn’t know it was Lucy then.  If I had, I would have called you right away.  I didn’t find that out until yesterday when everyone else learned about it.”

“Did you get a good look at the man bending over her?” Lester asked.

“He wasn’t wearing his regular clothes, so I didn’t recognize him at first.  He only wore a white t-shirt and work pants, but when a slowed down, he looked up at me, with this crazy look in his eyes, and he motioned me to keep driving.  That’s when I saw that it was the Reverend.”

“Did you tell the police what you saw?”

“I told you.  I ain’t no snitch.”

“What are the police gonna do anyway?” Charley asked.  Anger entered his voice.  “Did they do anything to help Taylor?  Did they do anything to help the man’s own brother?  Did they do anything to help his first two wives, and God only knows who else?”

“They couldn’t do anything.”  The other member of Charley’s entourage, Cecil, spoke up for the first time.  “He’s protected by magic.”

Charley’s face contorted in disgust.  “Don’t be a damned fool.” Cecil faded into the chair where he was sitting. 


“Ain’t nobody protected by magic,” Charley continued.  “The man is protected by ‘I don’t give a shit.’  The police don’t give a shit.  The politicians don’t give a shit.  Until Lucy got killed, the papers didn’t give a shit.”

“If it was a white person he killed,” Wilson ventured, “the police would have locked him up after the first murder.”

“You’re Goddamned right they would have,” Charley said.  “You think they’d let a serial killer run around here all these years, just walking around killing folks in plain sight, if his victims were white?”

“No, they would not have,” said Charley.  “But the powers that be aren’t interested in using their powers to save us.”

Cassandra came in, skirting around the edge of the room.  She sidled up to Cecil in his upholstered chair and looked at him mournfully until he noticed her and jumped up out of his seat.  “You take my chair, Miss Cassandra.”

“We shouldn’t even be talking about this in front of her,” Wilson said.

“Why not?” Charley asked.  “She’s got a target on her back bigger than anyone.”

Cassandra covered her eyes with the back of her wrist and sobbed.  Only one corner of her mouth betrayed the beginnings of a smile.

“Somebody’s got to do something,” Charley continued.  “And it ain’t gonna be the police.  It ain’t gonna be the justice system.  It’s got to be one of us.”

There was a long pause as silence took over the room.  Lester noticed that it wasn’t just the people in the living room—Charley and his friends, Cassandra, and the girl Laverne.  The bustle of activity he’d detected when he first entered his home had ceased entirely.  During Charley’s rant, everyone had edged toward the living room, and now the whole house stood still, listening, absorbing everything being said.

“You all need to get on home now,” he said. “Finish up your plates and then go.  I want to thank you all for coming, but we’ve got a funeral to prepare for, and right now I’m tired from the road.”

Charley looked at Wilson, and jerked his head toward the door.  Cecil jumped up to follow them.  As he passed by Lester, Charley looked him in the eyes and said, “Someone’s got to do something.”

Lester slapped his cousin on the back.  “I know how you feel.”


People were moving again and there was a growing buzz of conversation.  People said their goodbyes and dropped off their empty plates in the kitchen.  It would take another twenty minutes before everyone cleared out, and after Jan took little Robert across the neighborhood to a friend’s house, Lester was alone. 

Go to Chapter 24.