Louella sat on a bench in the town square going over her notes. She liked this spot in the center of town, which was within walking distance of the courthouse, The Country Diner, where she could go for coffee, and the public library, though each was closed now that it was Sunday. In early April, it was still cool enough to be caught outside in long sleeves, but not so cold that she needed a jacket.
“This is a strange story,” she mumbled to herself as she flipped from a page of notes scribbled on a yellow legal pad to another separate pad, which contained the working outline of the book she was writing, tentatively titled, The Reverend.
She was still puzzling over how to connect the pieces when she became aware, by the rise of the wooden slats on the bench where she was sitting and the spread of tingles moving up her back and neck, that someone was sitting next to her. She turned her head up toward the main road, partially obscured by a hedge row, and saw out of her peripheral vision that it was a black man. Another bench lay unoccupied not ten feet away. There was no one else around.
Louella flinched at her the sound of her name. She had no excuse now not to look at him, so she turned both her eyes toward him and made her appraisal. He looked to be in his late-thirties, maybe early forties. He wore impenetrable black sunglasses and a navy blue turtle neck and white corduroy pants. He wore no hat and his afro stuck out three or four inches.
“The name’s Kevin,” the man said.
“I don’t know you,” Louella said, “I’m busy, and I’m a little tired of being accosted, so if you don’t mind skipping the pleasantries, I would prefer if you could go ahead and state your business. What is it you’re looking for exactly?”
Kevin pulled his sunglasses down to the end of his nose and watched her for a moment, before pushing them back into position and looking in another direction.
“Absolution,” he said.
Louella watched him for a moment. She looked around, but the streets were deserted, with most folks attending one of the many protestant churches in the area.
“For what crime do you wish to be forgiven?”
“Crimes,” he corrected. “There’s been too many to name.”
Louella hugged her purse.
The man, Kevin, looked at her and shook her head. “I work for a man named Ernie Smith. You know him?”
“I believe I have had the misfortune of making his acquaintance. What about him?”
Ernie looked down the street. Louella turned and followed his gaze toward a man pushing a large broom down the sidewalk by the pharmacy.
“It’s just a street sweeper.”
“We can’t talk here. I’ll come to your motel tomorrow.” Kevin eased off of the bench and stood behind her.
“I don’t believe I’ve invited you.” Louella turned. “Where are you going?”
“You’ll want to hear what I have to say,” he said and quickly strolled off toward a back exit through a path through the hedges.
The next day, Louella spent the morning waiting in her room. It annoyed her that she had not been given a time frame of when she might expect this person, whom she barely knew, and she had doubts about his ability to provide any actionable information, but a little voice in the back of her head told her that this time, he was telling the truth. He hadn’t asked for any money, and that bit about absolution suggested she was dealing with a rare breed—an honest criminal. After a cup of coffee brewed in the room and a light breakfast of bread and jam, she spent the rest of the morning going over her notes.
At noon, she had peanut butter sandwich and a glass of water and then wrote until four thirty in the afternoon. By then, she was beginning to get a little edgy. She had been invited to a cocktail party that evening, and she would need time to get ready.
She was just beginning to think he wasn’t going to show when she heard a knock at the door.
“You’re late,” she said as the door swung open, but the person on the other side wasn’t Kevin.
Instinctively, she took a step back and touched her hand to her heart.
A big smile expanded across the face of Ernie Smith. Without asking permission, he stepped into the room and closed the door.
Louella backed her way across the room, looking for a weapon. A lamp? Too large and unwieldy. A remote control? Too small. Then she saw the glass ashtray on the bedside table. It was heavy and while it probably wouldn’t kill him, it could buy her enough time to escape.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“You were expecting someone else?” Ernie asked, maintaining his smile. He was dressed in a plain brown suit and a rumpled fedora. He carried a folded newspaper under his arm.
“I prefer to know when I am going to receive a visitor.”
“You’re expected guest couldn’t make it,” Ernie said, “so I came instead. I brought you your newspaper.” The newspaper was rolled up in a rubber band, which Ernie slid to the top until it flew off to some corner of the room. He tossed the paper onto the bed in such a way that it unfolded enough to reveal the top half of the front page.
“Where is he?” From her vantage point, Louella could see the name of the newspaper—it was the Sentinel—but she couldn’t make out the headline.
“I haven’t seen him,” Ernie said. “Maybe there’s something about him in the paper.”
What an odd thing to say, thought Louella, with a growing sense of dread. She was caught between the newspaper and the ashtray. It would be awkward and obvious now if she continued to move toward her choice of weapon, so she stepped toward the bed, preparing herself as best she could to meet her fate.
She reached for the newspaper. The headline said, “Man shot-gunned while committing burglary.” She scanned the article. It had taken place the night before. A man claimed to hear sounds in his basement early in the evening around seven. He went downstairs with his shotgun and found a man going through his things. According to the homeowner, the burglar turned a gun on him, “’And that’s when I let him have it,’ said Milton Banks of Briardale Lane. ‘He was dead before he hit the floor.’ The alleged burglar was later identified by relatives Kevin Connelly, of Oak Park.”
So that was his name, Louella thought. Kevin Connelly. “I take it this man, Banks, is on your payroll.”
“Milton Banks?” Ernie said, still wearing that awful smile. “We went to school together.” He forced a solemn expression. “Shame about Kevin though. Did you know we used to work together at the funeral home? The whole thing is a terrible tragedy. I had to let him go just last week. He’d gotten himself into drugs.”
Louella held up the front page. “You did this.”
Ernie shook his head in a gesture of pretend sadness. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” He stepped closer to her.
“I’ve got nothing to say to you. Now, get out of here before I scream bloody murder.”
“Scream all you want. No one is going to hear you.”
“You wouldn’t dare to hurt me,” Louella said.
“You have me confused with someone else. I would dare.”
“People will notice,” Louella sputtered. “It would attract scrutiny to your illegal activities.”
“You mean scrutiny like I have now,” Ernie said.
“It would be worse. I’m a famous writer. The New York Times would send a reporter full time.”
“I think you overestimate your own importance. You wrote one book. At best, you’re a human interest story.”
Louella, shaking badly, dropped to a sitting position on the bed.
“Now, I don’t want you to think I go around killing folks for fun. If I kill you, there isn’t much in it for me, other than my personal security.”
“Was there security in it for you when you killed that man yesterday?”
“Poor Kevin,” Ernie said. “It turns out, a close associate of mine is the beneficiary on his life insurance policy.”
“Is that how you do it? You use your cronies to kill off their own innocent family members? Is that how it was with Reverend Baxter?”
Ernie watched her calmly. “I have many associates.”
“But he’s the one that took the fall. You can’t keep doing this kind of thing. The bodies can’t keep piling up now that the Reverend’s dead. Besides, the insurance companies will change the rules.”
“I’ll just have to be more creative,” Ernie said. “A good businessman is able to adapt.”
“Stop, please. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t write another book. I’ll keep your secret as long as you stop hurting people. I don’t have any evidence anyway. If I published, you could sue me for slander. Just leave these people alone and you’ll never have to worry about me.”
“If I kill you now, I won’t have to worry about you. That seems like the safer course of action.”
“I’ve already written most of it. Every week, I send off pages to my agent in New York. My publisher already has everything, right up to my meeting with Kevin yesterday. If I die, they’ll know it was you.”
“It’s true. I mailed the last chapter this morning. I have the carbons over there.” Louella walked over to the desk and sorted through a stack of yellow paper. She held up a page. “Read it yourself.”
Ernie scanned the carbon. “You put my name in here.”
“Of course I did,” Louella snapped. “It’s a true story. So, you see, if I disappear, the investigation will lead straight to you. I don’t like to toot my own horn, but in some circles, I’m a pretty big deal. So, you have an incentive to leave me and everyone else alone. I’m sure you have plenty of other ways to make money.”
Ernie stared ahead in contemplation, and then nodded.
“So, I won’t publish, but if you go back on your deal, then I’ll go back on mine.”
“You said yourself, you don’t have the evidence. I could sue.”
“No one is going to believe your word over mine.”
“I’ll stick to the deal,” Ernie said, “if you do.” He turned walked outside. The door slammed shut behind him.
Louella fell to the bed, clutching the carbons to her chest. She was shaking and tears poured from her eyes and she gasped for breath. After a few minutes, she somewhat, but her hands shook as she attempted to place the copy of her chapter on the desk, right beside the original.
Go to Chapter 35.
About This Novel; Chapter 1Chapter 2; Chapter 3Chapter 4; Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7; Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11; Chapter 12; Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16; Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20 Chapter 21; Blood Cries at the Half-Way PointChapter 22; Chapter 23Chapter 24; Chapter 25Chapter 26; Chapter 27Chapter 28; Chapter 29Chapter 30; Chapter 31Chapter 32