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

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