Melvin Little was pleased with the turnout. Everyone in town, it seemed, including the mayor, the president of the bank, two judges, several high profile doctors, and the President and CEO of the Hunter Mills Textile Company, had showed up at the Willow Creek Country Club to meet and greet the famous author, Louella Harper, and Melvin had arranged the whole thing.
Already Melvin could sense the event raising his profile among the town’s most elite citizens. Alexander Turner himself (the grandson of the founder of Hunter Mills) had made it a point to shake Melvin’s hand and congratulate him on arranging a town meeting with the most famous author since God Almighty.
Mr. Turner carried a copy of Louella Harper’s book under his arm. He told Melvin he planned to snag an autograph for his daughter after supper.
“Just don’t bother her during the meal,” Melvin said, exuding authority. “She hates that.”
Mr. Turner nodded profusely and thanked Melvin for the advice.
There were fifty seven tables in the main banquet room overlooking Lake Harris. Each table was covered by a fine white linen table cloth and set with silver utensils. The waiters wore tuxedos and brought out food and champagne on silver trays. For dinner, Melvin had decided on surf and turf. Of course, the town paid for everything.
Melvin positioned himself, along with CEO Turner, the mayor, the chief of police, and their wives, at the table with the guest of honor.
Louella was a bit taken aback by all the attention. “Is all this really necessary?” she asked the little lawyer who had picked her up at the train station.
“Oh, it’s necessary,” Melvin assured her. “If you’re gonna learn everything there is to know about the Reverend, then you’ll need doors to open for you, and the people in this room can open every door in town.”
“I can open my own doors,” Louella said. She spun the bacon from the filet mignon onto her fork and ate it in one bite.
The mayor’s wife broke the awkward silence that followed. “Ms. Harper, I just loved your book.”
“Thank you dear,” Louella said. She dabbed the meat juice running down her chin with a linen napkin.
“It must have been so exciting for you when you found out they were going to make the movie. What’s Jimmy Stewart like?”
Melvin kicked his wife under the table.
“Now, Nancy,” Marry Anne stuttered. “Ms. Harper isn’t here to talk about her movie. She’s here to work on her new book. She’s here to learn about the Reverend.”
“Oh I don’t know anything about that awful man other than what was printed in the newspapers. Chief Thompson could tell you more about that.” Nancy nodded in the direction of the police chief, who was going to town on a plate of hushpuppies and seemed startled by the intrusion.
“What’s that?” he asked. “Oh, right, the Reverend. Most of those murders fell under Sheriff Maddox’s jurisdiction.”
“And where is Sheriff Maddox?” Louella asked.
Melvin spoke up suddenly. “I believe he had a prior engagement.”
“I can’t imagine what,” said Sheryl Turner. “I know there’s no place I’d rather be.” She smiled and somehow twinkled her nose at Louella.
“I’m not sure,” Melvin said. “I think he may have fallen ill.”
“I’m surprised he told you that, Melvin,” Mayor Randall said. “I thought he hated your guts.” He let out a cackle.
Melvin redirected the conversation to Chief Thompson. “Now, Harry, I know you didn’t let Lonnie Maddox have all the glory. I bet you’re holding onto some useful documentation that you could share with Ms. Harper.”
The police chief shrugged. “There might be something in the files.” He looked at Louella and smiled graciously. “You’re more than welcome to stop by the station any time you like.”
Louella bowed slightly. “I’ll do that,” she said.
“And of course,” Melvin said. “The door to my office is always open. I probably have more files on the Reverend than anyone.”
Mary Anne leaned toward Louella. “Melvin was the Reverend’s attorney for almost ten years.”
“Hell, Melvin, with all the money he gave you, the Reverend practically built your office building.” The mayor cackled again.
“Now the people you really should be talking to,” Nancy offered, “are the colored people. They were the ones most affected by the man.”
“Other than Melvin,” the mayor said before stuffing a chunk of steak into his mouth.
“Were any of them invited tonight?” Louella asked.
Everyone sitting at the table laughed. Louella sipped her champagne.
Go to Chapter 8