Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 24


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


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.


“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.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Blood Cries Chapter 22


“It sounds wonderful, Darling.  I told Edgar you’re writing the next In Cold Blood.  He’s ready to offer you an advance.”

“Well, I’m 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.”

“I’m sure you’ll work it out.  Of course, I’ll tell him anything you want.  You just take your time and write another masterpiece.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Of course you will, Darling.  Of course you will.  I’m sorry I have to run.  I’m having lunch with the head of Columbia Pictures.”

“Of course you are.”

“I’ll speak with you in a few days.”

Louella 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.

Her next stop—like most of her previous stops—was a small bungalow situated just off of the highway.

Louella 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.

After a 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 indifference.

Louella 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…”

The girl 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 her swagger.

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.”

Laverne 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.”

Louella smiled and extended her hand.  “Thank you for inviting me.”

“You’ll 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.”
“It must have been devastating for her,” Louella said. “And for the rest of your family.”

“Oh, you can’t imagine.  Half the family curses the Reverend’s name, the other half is trying to clear it.” 

Hannah 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?”

“Coffee would be lovely,” Louella said.

Hannah 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.

Louella was 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. 

She was 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.

“Are you 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 gloved hand. 

“It was so nice of you to agree to meet with me,” Louella said.  

“Anything for you.” Cassandra said.  It was ten in the morning, but her eyes were bloodshot and Louella wondered if she was fully cognizant.

“Is it okay if we start the interview now?” Louella asked. 

“As you wish,” Cassandra said.

Louella 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 floor.

“All my life,” Cassandra said.  Her manner of speech was breathy and dramatic; she emphasized every syllable.

“And when did you meet the Reverend?”

Cassandra 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.”

Louella scribbled a few notes, opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by Cassandra’s continuing monologue.

“Of course, 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.”

“Forgive me for asking this, but did you have an affair with him prior to that?”

Cassandra 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.

“My friends 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.”

“You had been married prior to that?” Louella asked.

“Married 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.”

“Please tell him I’m sorry I missed him.”

Hannah 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?”

“No thank 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. 

Hannah 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.”

Louella continued to study her questions.  “Mrs. Baxter, do you believe your husband caused the death of any of his relatives?”

“People 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.”

“After his 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!”

“Maybe you could tell me a little bit about Lucy and what happened the night she went missing.”

“She was 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.”

Louella eyed her over her reading glasses.

“I loved 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.”

“You said she was sweet when she was little.  Did something change?”

“Oh yes,” 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 anymore.”

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.

“When will you be holding auditions?” Cassandra asked.

“Excuse me?” Louella said, as if snapping out of a daydream.

“For the movie.  When will the auditions be held?”

“What movie?” Louella asked.  

Cassandra lifted her hands toward the ceiling.  “This,” she said.  “All of this.  I’ve been told I’m a wonderful actress.”

“Have you?”

“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.”

“That’s very impressive,” Louella said.

Cassandra beamed.

“But I’m writing a book.”

Cassandra looked at her perplexed.  “I was told there would be a movie.”

“Well, I suppose it’s possible.  My last book was made into a movie.”

This seemed 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 silent laughter.

Louella was 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. 

The girl was leaning forward with her hands on her hips.  Her face contorted in anger and her head made little stabbing motions in Louella’s direction.

“I don’t remember giving you permission to come here.  I don’t remember giving you permission to write stories about my family.”

Louella’s mouth fell open, but her words got stuck in the bottom of her throat.

“Quiet 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.”

“Laverne, you are being rude.”  Hannah appeared at her daughter’s side, holding a leather brief case. 

Laverne turned 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.” 

“Mother, I am too old to be sent to my room.”

“If that was true you wouldn’t be acting like this.”

As Laverne stomped off to her room, Cassandra shook her head knowingly.

Hannah 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.

Hannah unsnapped 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.”

“Yes, thank 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.

“What’s that?” Cassandra asked. 

Louella 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 Little.  

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