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.
the link to the voodoo group down in New Orleans?” Marvin asked. “What are they called?”
Sisters,” Jim said. “I haven’t been able
to find anything. I think it’s a
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.
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.
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
not true then I don’t think we should report it,” Jim said.
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
it is being said, then you can report that it’s being said. That still qualifies as journalism.”
his head as he looked down at his notes.
“Okay, so what about the funeral?”
Jim said. “Anything else?”
should bring a camera.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
like a purse,” he’d complained to Marvin when it was given to him.
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.”
right,” Marvin said. “It’s not a
purse. It’s a haversack.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?”
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
slid into his handbag as he made his way into the chapel. It looked like Marvin would get his picture after
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
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.
“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
“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
“Better to have it at the Reverend’s?”
Lester fell silent for a moment.
“Lucy. Jesus Christ, I don’t
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
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
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
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
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
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?”
“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
“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
“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
“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
“We shouldn’t even be talking about this in front of her,” Wilson
“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
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.
wonderful, Darling. I told Edgar you’re
writing the next In Cold Blood. He’s ready to offer you an advance.”
not ready to accept one,” Louella said.
“At this point, this is just an exercise in research. I don’t even know
if I’ll be able to get all the information I need to finish a book.”
you’ll work it out. Of course, I’ll tell
him anything you want. You just take
your time and write another masterpiece.”
what I can do.”
you will, Darling. Of course you
will. I’m sorry I have to run. I’m having lunch with the head of Columbia
with you in a few days.”
placed the phone on its cradle. Cut off
from her agent and from her other life in New York, she found herself alone
once again in a small motel room in Alabama.
She stared at the phone for a long time.
stop—like most of her previous stops—was a small bungalow situated just off of
climbed the steps to the front porch. She
adjusted her hat and straightened her dress.
Her purse hung from her left elbow.
She cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and then delivered three
sharp raps to the door with her knuckles.
short wait, a young woman opened the door.
She looked to be in her mid to late teens. She wore a red and white striped t-shirt that
hugged her breasts and short white pants cut off at the thigh. Louella waited for a greeting, but the girl
only stared at her with an expression that mixed boredom, defiance, and
stumbled through an introduction. “Good
morning. My name is Louella Harper. I spoke with a Ms. Sherman on the phone. I have an appointment to meet…”
tilted her head slightly toward the ceiling.
“Mom,” she yelled. “Some woman’s at
the door.” She spun around without
another glance in Louella’s direction.
She left the door open as she walked away, her see-sawing hips punctuating
A woman in
a gray dress hurried to the door trying to attach her Sunday hat. Louella judged her to be in her mid-forties. “Laverne,” she scolded. “This is Louella Harper. She’s a famous author and an invited guest.”
shrugged before disappearing around a corner.
The woman reached
for Louella’s hand. “It’s so nice to
have you in our home, Ms. Harper. I’m Hannah. Please come in.”
smiled and extended her hand. “Thank you
for inviting me.”
have to forgive my daughter. She hates
all the attention directed at the family and she’s still upset about Lucy. Even though they were cousins, they thought
of each other as sisters.”
have been devastating for her,” Louella said. “And for the rest of your
can’t imagine. Half the family curses
the Reverend’s name, the other half is trying to clear it.”
escorted Louella to the living room, offered her a seat on a white sofa with a
red paisley pattern design. “Would you
like coffee or tea?”
would be lovely,” Louella said.
disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Louella to sit and study the room. This wasn’t the first time she’d been left in
a formal living room on this trip. She
was surprised at how similar they all seemed to be. Stiff couches, a few upholstered chairs,
portraits of children on the wall, and the general appearance of a room used
only on rare occasions.
still waiting for her coffee when a woman entered the room. She gazed at the floor and sighed loudly then
plopped down into the chair nearest Louella without acknowledging her
presence. A gold compact mirror appeared
in her hand that she then used to powder her nose.
fortyish with a prominent chin and cheekbones.
She wore a black dress and a black hat with a lace veil over her
eyes. As far as Louella knew, no other
tragedies had occurred in the family in the last three years, but she
recognized the woman from a sketch made by a courtroom artist that had appeared
in the newspaper.
Cassandra? Hello, I’m Louella Harper.”
The woman eyed
her carefully then slowly the corners of her lips curled into a smile. “Charmed, I’m sure,” she said, extending a
“It was so
nice of you to agree to meet with me,” Louella said.
for you.” Cassandra said. It was ten in
the morning, but her eyes were bloodshot and Louella wondered if she was fully
“Is it okay
if we start the interview now?” Louella asked.
wish,” Cassandra said.
lifted her pocketbook from the floor to her lap and began rifling through it. “Have you lived around here all your life?” she
asked. She located a pencil and stored it between her teeth until she found a
small notebook. Her purse dropped to the
life,” Cassandra said. Her manner of
speech was breathy and dramatic; she emphasized every syllable.
did you meet the Reverend?”
tilted her head in a moment of reflection.
She placed a gloved hand to the base of her neck. “It was like a fairy tale. The first time I saw him I was seventeen
years old. He was up in the pulpit
preaching, and I thought I’d never seen such a handsome man. I knew right then I was going to marry him.”
scribbled a few notes, opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by
Cassandra’s continuing monologue.
he was married already. My friends told
me it was a sin even to think about him.
I would have to wait until years later when the stars finally aligned for
us and my fairy tale came true.”
for asking this, but did you have an affair with him prior to that?”
leaned away from Louella and looked at her in an appraising manner before
continuing. “The Reverend would never do
such a thing. It went against his belief
system. It wasn’t until after his second
wife died and I ran into him one morning at the Piggly Wiggly that we finally
started talking. He offered to cook me dinner.
said I was crazy. They said, ‘Don’t you
know who that is?’ They acted like, if I went to his house, he would murder
me. I was a little frightened, but I
knew I had to go.”
been married prior to that?” Louella asked.
and divorced. With two children. Lucy by adoption, and my son Max.” The
thought of her son appeared to fill her with joy and she echoed his name. “Max.
I’m sorry, I can’t introduce you, but he’s out visiting friends.”
tell him I’m sorry I missed him.”
entered the room carrying the coffee set on a silver tray. “So, how is everyone doing?” she asked in a
singsong voice. She placed the tray on a
glass-top table and began pouring cups from a stainless steel coffee pot. “Cream and sugar?”
you,” Louella said. She took a cup and
saucer and held it in her lap while she turned her attention to her notebook,
now balanced on the sofa’s arm rest.
With her free hand, she flipped to a list of prepared questions.
finished pouring the coffee and took a seat in one of the white upholstered
chairs. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “You
won’t even know I’m here.”
continued to study her questions. “Mrs.
Baxter, do you believe your husband caused the death of any of his relatives?”
want to believe in gossip,” Cassandra said, “but the truth is a hard thing to know.”
“I know exactly
what you mean,” Louella said.
“Oh, I just
thought of something you might like to see,” Hannah said. She placed her cup of coffee on the
table. “I’ll be right back.”
first wife passed away,” Cassandra continued, paying no attention to her
sister, “the paper ran a big article that made him a marked man, but just
because a man is accused of one thing, that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of
something else. It’s not right to think
so. It’s not right in the eyes of God!”
could tell me a little bit about Lucy and what happened the night she went
such a sweet girl when she was little.
She used to help me around the house.
She would clean and fetch things for me.
She was my little Cinderella.”
eyed her over her reading glasses.
her so much,” Cassandra continued. “So
did my husband. Even though she was
adopted during my previous marriage, he thought of her as his stepdaughter.”
she was sweet when she was little. Did
Cassandra said. “When she got older, she
didn’t want to go to school. She started
running away from me for short periods.
She thought she could make it on her own. She wouldn’t help around the house
anymore. It was like she wasn’t our Lucy
As Louella jotted
down notes, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She heard the floor creak and caught sight of
Hannah’s daughter Laverne lurking in the foyer. She leaned forward and watched her pace in and
out of the empty door frame.
you be holding auditions?” Cassandra asked.
Louella said, as if snapping out of a daydream.
movie. When will the auditions be held?”
movie?” Louella asked.
lifted her hands toward the ceiling.
“This,” she said. “All of
this. I’ve been told I’m a wonderful
“I can do
any emotion.” She ducked her chin toward
her chest and flashed Louella a sultry stare.
Then she looked up at the ceiling and placed the back of her wrist
against her forehead as her face twisted into an expression of despair.”
impressive,” Louella said.
writing a book.”
looked at her perplexed. “I was told
there would be a movie.”
suppose it’s possible. My last book was
made into a movie.”
to mollify Cassandra. “Of course, of
course, but when the time comes…” She sat back into a lounging position in her
chair. “…I hope you will consider me for
the part of me.” She opened her mouth in
still wondering how best to explain the amount of involvement, or lack thereof,
a book writer has in an adapted film production, when she became aware of a
voice rising in the foyer. She looked up
from her notebook and saw Lavern standing in the doorway.
was leaning forward with her hands on her hips.
Her face contorted in anger and her head made little stabbing motions in
remember giving you permission to come here.
I don’t remember giving you permission to write stories about my
mouth fell open, but her words got stuck in the bottom of her throat.
down, girl,” Cassandra snapped.
Laverne ignored her. “You don’t have any right to do this! You don’t have any right to come in here, and
get into our business, and try to steal my family’s stories.”
you are being rude.” Hannah appeared at
her daughter’s side, holding a leather brief case.
to her mother. “I’m not the one telling
stories about people who aren’t here to defend themselves.”
“You get to
your room this instant and don’t come back until you can act civil.”
am too old to be sent to my room.”
was true you wouldn’t be acting like this.”
stomped off to her room, Cassandra shook her head knowingly.
lowered her shoulders and sighed. She
walked over to Louella and set the briefcase down beside her on the sofa. “I am so sorry for the behavior of my
daughter, Ms. Harper. I hope it doesn’t
reflect too poorly on me.”
“No, No, of
course not,” Louella mumbled.
the briefcase. “Anyway, I found these in
the Reverend’s den when I was helping Cassandra move in with me and I thought they
might be of some use to you.”
you,” Louella said. She forced a smile
in reciprocation of Hannah’s kindness, but the girl’s words echoed in her mind,
and it was with some hesitation that she accepted a stack of papers.
that?” Cassandra asked.
leafed through stack. “These are insurance
policies,” she said absently. “There
must be twenty different policies here.”
She scanned the names listed on the forms. The names of the insured changed with each
policy. She found Cassandra’s name on one, also Laverne, Max, and Lucy, but the
list extended, she suspected, to everyone else in the family. There was even a policy on Melvin
The policy amounts varied between fifty and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Only the name of the beneficiary
never changed, not in any meaningful way. Sometimes, he used his full name, and sometimes he varied his name through a combination of first and
middle names and initials, but in each case, the person due to collect the money when
the insured person died was Reverend Will Baxter.
Go to Chapter 23