About This Novel; Chapter 1Chapter 2; Chapter 3Chapter 4; Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7; Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11; Chapter 12; Chapter 13Chapter 14
Louella sat at the head of the hotel bed. Her feet on the floor, she hunched into the light of the bedside lamp. Her finger circled the face of the telephone until she located the zero. She spun the dial and waited until she heard the voice of the operator. “I’d like to place a collect call, please” she said. A minute later, Lydia was on the other end of the line.
“It’s not working out,” Louella said in a shaking voice.
“You just started,” Lydia said. She sounded calm, relaxed, and distant. Like she was reading in bed.
“I know, but it isn’t what I thought it would be,” Louella said. She twisted the telephone cord around her wrist.
“I just need your support right now, I guess.” She plucked a loose string out of the bedspread and laid it on the bedside table at the base of the lamp.
“I am supporting you,” Lydia said. “If you want to come on home you can, but you owe it to yourself to at least explore the possibility…”
“I know, but the people here…”
“What people? The lawyer?”
“Well, yes, Melvin thinks he’s the next Paul Newman, but it’s not just him. It’s everybody. I can almost see their minds calculating new ways to exploit my being here.”
“How?” Lydia asked. “You aren’t the type to throw money around.”
“They don't know that. They think I’m the free money dispensary. Either that or they think I’m going to write them into my book, and somehow that will somehow transform them into an international celebrity.”
“Like who? Oliver Twist?”
Louella kicked off her shoes. “Exactly. There is no basis in reality. Most of the people in this county have never even read a book, but everywhere I go, whether it’s in the field doing research or at the mayor’s dinner party, everyone thinks I can make their lives more glamorous through the magic of typing.” She lifted her feet unto the bed and lay down, facing the telephone. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Why would anyone want to be famous in the first place?” Lydia asked.
“Everyone pestering you for autographs,” Louella said, “as if your name on a piece of paper carried in value. What do they even do with them?”
“Keep them in a scrapbook maybe?”
“Or on a bookshelf,” Louella said, “next to the other books they’ve never read.”
“It’s just something people do,” said Lydia.
“Why do they think it would be nice to be recognized all the time, to never be able to walk down the street in public without having some stranger accost them, to never be able to sit in a coffee house and chat with a friend without being interrupted, and to have their anonymity and privacy stripped away for the amusement of people who, when it comes down to it, don’t care a fig about them?”
“Oh, Honey, I think you’re just homesick.”
Louella turned on her other side, away from the phone. “Well yes, I suppose so. Don’t you miss me?”
“Of course I do.”
“But you don’t want me to come home.”
“Of course I want you to come home, but you just got started. You need to see where this takes you.”
“This afternoon it’s taking me to meet a convicted murderer.”
“You’re going to a jail?” Lydia asked.
“No, a funeral home.” Louella imagined a question mark appearing over Lydia’s head. “He got early release for good behavior.”
“Is Jim going with you?”
“No, he has to work.”
“What about Melvin?”
“It’s just going to be little old me.” Louella smiled. “Why,” she asked. “Are you worried about me?”
“No,” Lydia laughed. “I’m worried about him.”
* * *
Louella entered the lobby of the funeral home and padded across dark blue carpet in tennis shoes that sank into its thickness. A large silent man sat on a stool behind the counter, looking as if he’d rather be some place else.
“Good morning,” Louella said.
The man behind the counter offered a blank, if not overtly menacing stare, but said nothing.
“I have an appointment to meet with the funeral director, Mr. Johnson.”
At last, the man stood up and turned his back to Louella. “This way,” he said in a bored tone of voice. He led her down a darkened hallway to a conference area, where he left her in one of six foldout metal chairs situated around a long oak table in the center of the room.
The room held a distinct odor. Formaldehyde maybe. The floor was covered in the same blue carpet as the lobby. The walls were completely bare. Not even a painting of Jesus. Off to one corner was a chest-high, elbow-shaped bar.
“That’s odd,” Louella muttered to herself. She stood and went over and peered behind the bar. She found it stocked with an assortment of liquor bottles including bourbon, gin, vodka, vermouth…
“Can I pour you a drink?”
Louella turned suddenly, holding her hand to heart.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” A man stood across the table from her, a smile affixed to his face. He appeared to be in his forties or early fifties. He had patches of gray in his hair. He was about six feet tall, clean shaven, and dressed in a rumpled black suit. The smile told her he was the funeral director.
“Mr. Johnson, I presume.”
Ernie came came around the table holding out his hand. “And you must be Ms. Harper. I am so excited to have you here.”
Louella took his hand cordially. “I suppose it’s nice to be wanted.”
Ernie motioned for her to sit. “Did you want that drink?”
“I couldn’t possibly,” Louella said. “It’s much too early for me. Ask me again in five minutes.”
Ernie threw his head back as if to laugh, but no sound came from his throat. “We’ll talk then,” he said. He took a seat at the head of the table. Louella sat to his left. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“Well,” Louella began. She opened the satchel resting on her lap, and removed a legal pad. “I’m in town researching a book about a man you may know.” She placed the pad and a pencil on the table in front of her.
“I know why you’re here, Ms. Harper, and I’d love to help you.”
“Yes, of course," Ernie said. "I knew the Reverend quite well. As well as anyone could have known him. In fact, due to the nature of my business, I know just about everyone in town. I’m kind of a lightning rod for the community.”
“Is that how you would describe yourself?”
“Ask anyone in town,” Ernie said. “I’ll introduce you to the Reverend’s wife Cassandra. That’s his third wife. I knew his other wives too—I buried them—and I know the rest of the family. Now, these are people who might not be open to questions from outsiders, but they’ll talk to you if I tell them to.”
“Oh, yes. And I would be happy to facilitate meetings with all of them… for a consideration.”
Louella eyed the man for a few seconds after he finished speaking. She picked up her pencil and began tapping the pad with the eraser. “How is it that you have so much control that you can… facilitate all these meetings?”
“As I explained, my business allows me to meet a diverse group of individuals, and, well, the Reverend’s… activities… all seemed to require my services.”
Again, Louella stared at him for a few seconds after he completed his sentence. “If you don’t mind me asking, when you refer to your business, are you talking about the mortuary or the criminal organization you run?”
Ernie, who had been leaning toward her, recoiled. “I am a funeral director,” he said softly. “I’m a business man. A respected member of the community.”
“But you also went to jail for murder?”
Instead of looking at her, his face drifted off to the side. “I never committed any murder.”
“No, you had someone else do it for you. I understand you also distribute narcotics and run all of the illegal gambling operations in town.”
“I think someone has been telling you lies.”
“So you weren’t connected to the shotgun murders in 1957 for which you were arrested, but,” she flipped open the legal pad and examined a page of text, “the charges were dropped after two of the witnesses became violently ill and had to be rushed to the hospital.” She looked up at Ernie. “They later refused to testify.”
“You’re making a very big mistake.”
“Mr. Johnson,” Louella said. She looked him right in the eyes. “You may run the illegal activities in this town, but you don’t frighten me.”
“I think we’re done here,” Ernie said. He showed her to the door.
Go to Chapter 16
Go to Chapter 16