Lindsay Harding watched her soldier—this man who shared her every interest, her every future goal—move across the body-strewn battlefield. He crouched and fired, moved behind a low earthen mound, and reloaded. She was close enough to see the delicate curve of his jaw with its downy fluff of beard. Yes, there was no doubt about it. Her soldier was swift, handsome, and courageous—and all of nineteen years old.
A nineteen-year-old Civil War reenactor. She, a thirty-year-old hospital chaplain and ordained minister with a mortgage and two degrees, was here at Mount Moriah, North Carolina’s annual battle reenactment after having been “89% compatibility matched” with a teenager who spent his free time playing army in a Confederate uniform.
The subscription to the online dating site had been a birthday gift from her well-meaning friends. Almost instantly, she had received a “wink” from Doyle Hargreaves. Lindsay had not yet learned enough about internet dating to be wary of sunglasses or dim lighting or shots taken from a great distance. Nor had she understood the importance of absolute specificity when detailing the acceptable age range for your potential matches.
Lindsay and Doyle had arranged to meet at the entrance to the state park where the reenactment was held. By both temperament and training, Lindsay was a master of the art of maintaining a neutral expression when confronted with surprising revelations. When she first beheld Doyle’s baby-pink cheeks and wispy facial hair, her brain might have been screaming “Cougar!”, but her face remained a mask of Sphinx-like detachment. When Doyle responded to her polite inquiry about his profession with the statement that he was “finishing off some high school credits this summer so I can get my commercial truck driving license in the fall,” however, she could only stare at him in goggle-eyed, slack-jawed horror. Doyle became defensive. “I was going to join the Marines, but I lost three toes in a lawnmower accident last year. Now they won’t let me enlist.”
“Sorry. It’s not the trucking part. It’s just that, well, you’re still in high school.”
He pouted. “I only gotta pass Señora Smolinski’s Spanish class and then I get my diploma.”
Lindsay bought him sarsaparilla, which seemed to appease him. As they wandered among the food stalls and the demonstrations of nineteenth-century arts and crafts, Doyle sipped his drink and chatted amiably. He told her about the battle he and his fellow reenactors were there to recreate, a small, unheralded skirmish that took place toward the war’s end in March of 1865. Union and Confederate troops had fought on and off for almost three days to an inconclusive outcome, with the Union regiment stymied and the Rebs retreating in the middle of the night. In the Mount Moriah reenactment version, however, the battle would be confined to a large, open field and would be neatly condensed into the space of an hour and twenty minutes.
As Doyle spoke, Lindsay warmed to him. He was a nice guy. Handsome. Cheerful. He was very knowledgeable about the Civil War. Maybe the eleven-year age gap could be surmounted. Maybe they would look back at this meeting, years from now, grilling hot dogs in their backyard, little Doyle Jr. jumping through the lawn sprinkler, and laugh at the serendipity of it all.
Then Doyle told her about the button peeing.
She had expressed admiration for his uniform, a well-tailored jacket the color of butternut squash skin. He was delighted by her compliment. “Yeah, I buried the jacket in the yard for a couple of weeks to get it to look old and smell like dirt. And you gotta store the brass buttons in pee. Otherwise, they look too shiny.”
“Pee. You know, pee?” He had mimed an action that would have been better left un-mimed. “It makes ‘em a little tarnished. They’re more authentic that way.” Doyle slurped the last of his sarsaparilla and tossed the paper cup in a garbage barrel. “Look, Lindsay, you seem really nice or whatever and your face and body are pretty good, but I don’t think I can date a Christian minister. You see, I’m thinking about becoming a Zoroastrian.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, nodding gravely. She was confused by the sudden conversational transition from urinating on your clothes to converting to an obscure Eastern religion. Before she could muster any kind of well-considered response, Doyle abruptly bid her goodbye and left to prepare for battle. Lindsay was left standing open-mouthed among the soldiers and belles.
Her cell phone began to ring. She pressed the green button to answer and was met by the sound of hysterical laughter.
“Shut up,” Lindsay said.
“Can I come out now?” asked the caller.
“Yes, I think the date is officially over,” Lindsay replied.
Lindsay’s best friend, Rob Wu, emerged from behind a nearby stall that sold replicas of nineteenth-century ladies’ undergarments. He was wiping tears of laughter from his cheek. “Oh man, Linds. That guy was so young he was an embryo.” Rob was a slender and neatly manicured Taiwanese man, whose accent flipped back and forth between Chinese and Southern—sometimes within the same word. The chaplaincy supervisor and head of the Pastoral Service Department at the hospital where Lindsay worked, Rob spent as much time as he possibly could figuring out how to schedule her for back-to-back night shifts and then hiding from her wrath when the schedule was posted. He considered this pursuit both a hobby and a vocation.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you come. I’ll never hear the end of this.” Lindsay had asked Rob along for moral support in case she got stood up or her date turned out to be a total creep. She never would have brought him if she had known that he would be a witness to her humiliation at the hands of a teenager who peed on his clothes as a hobby.
“Seriously, why did you let that date go on for almost a half hour? What were you guys talking about all that time? Couldn’t you have gotten rid of him earlier?” Rob asked.
Lindsay hung her head. “Actually, he was the one who ended it.”
Rob grimaced and put a consoling arm around her. “Oh, Linds. What do you want to do now? Do you want to go home?”
“I might as well stay and watch the reenactment. We know lots of the guys out there, and don’t usually get to see them in action. It might be fun. Besides, I’ve gone through a lot of waxing and buffing to get here today. I can’t remember the last time I was this shiny and hairless.”
They found a seat on the grass behind a yellow rope that demarcated the field of battle. By now, crowds of spectators had gathered and the artificial conflict was in full swing. The reenactors seemed to be drawn from all walks of life—everyone from diehards who arrived days beforehand and set up authentically Spartan bivouacs on the edges of the open fields to hobbyists who showed up for a couple of hours and strained to fasten their blue or gray uniforms over the twenty-first century swell of their beer bellies.
Lindsay surveyed the scene before her. Groups of Confederate and Union reenactors threw themselves into battle with the heedless zeal of lemmings hurling themselves into the sea. Doyle had moved out of the range of her vision, into the haze of cannon smoke. She looked up at the bright, almost pure-white sky, allowing herself to lapse into a kind of heat-induced meditation. She was grateful that at least Rob hadn’t been standing close enough to overhear their conversation. No one ever had to know about Doyle’s summer school classes or his lawnmower accident or his religious conversion. Her dreamy thoughts were punctuated by the thunder of the cannons and the war cries of the Rebs. Gradually the sounds changed. The canon fire died away, replaced by confused shouts and the wail of an ambulance siren.
“What happened?” Lindsay asked. Her gaze zeroed in on the field before her where an ambulance maneuvered over the ground, leaving waves of bewildered reenactors in its wake. Even the billowing smoke from the artillery seemed to get out of the vehicle’s way.
“No clue,” Rob replied. “Probably just some fatso reenactor passed out in all the excitement and heat.”
The ambulance stopped at the farthest reach of the battlefield, out where the cleared land gave way to thick woods. Two paramedics hurried out and knelt over a soldier whose prone form was barely visible through the haze and confused movements of the reenactors. Lindsay strained to make out the details of the fallen body. She noted with relief that the injured reenactor was a large man, far too large to be Doyle or any of her reenactor friends.
“I don’t know, Rob. Something’s not right.” The paramedics worked with a dreadful urgency that Lindsay had sometimes witnessed in the hospital’s ER. The kind of urgency that gave her a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, knowing that she might soon have to break bad news to some unlucky family. A few frenzied moments later, the paramedics loaded the fallen man onto a stretcher, spirited him into the ambulance and drove away toward the main road.
All the soldiers had by now ceased fire and stood staring at one another. Their choreographed movements interrupted, they seemed to have forgotten their purpose. There were confused shouts and suddenly the onlookers who had been standing next to Lindsay broke through the perimeter rope and rushed onto the battlefield, checking to make sure that their husbands and sons were safe and accounted for. Lindsay and Rob found themselves propelled forward by the surging crowd. It felt for a moment as if a frenzied mob scene might erupt. Instead of a mass panic, though, the crowd began to slow and spread out. What ensued wasn’t mayhem, but rather a fairly orderly process of wives and girlfriends gathering up their make-believe soldiers and forcibly leading them away.
Lindsay and Rob soon found themselves standing alone, about a dozen yards from where the fallen soldier had lain. The grass all around their feet was spattered with a rust-colored substance.
“What is that? Engine oil from the ambulance?” Rob asked, following her gaze.
Lindsay crouched down and touched her fingers to a place where the substance pooled on the parched grass. She gasped and jumped up, holding her hand out to Rob with a horrified expression. “It’s blood.”
“Jesus,” Rob whispered, wiping Lindsay’s hand on his shirt. “Hey, let’s get out of here.” He tipped his head toward three uniformed police officers moving quickly in their direction, carrying what appeared to be crime scene tape. Rob grabbed Lindsay’s hand and they maneuvered swiftly back into the crowd.
They made their way back to the stalls. Rob said, “I need a drink. I’m going to find a lemonade stand.” Rob was famously teetotal. He never touched anything stronger than black coffee.
“Honey, I’m gonna need something a lot stronger than lemonade,” Lindsay said. “I’m going home to crawl into a nice, comfy bottle of wine.” Might as well call it a day. After all, this had been the most successful date she had been on in recent memory. Best to quit while she was ahead.
Two days later, Lindsay found herself eating breakfast in the cafeteria of Mount Moriah Hospital with Rob and their friend, Anna Melrose. Anna, an emergency room doctor, was tall and athletic, her tan skin set off nicely by her white doctor’s coat and perfect white teeth. With light brown hair gathered into a loose ponytail, she looked like she would be as comfortable playing beach volleyball as mending broken limbs and bloody noses in the ER. Her good looks alone were enough to render her despicable in the eyes of most female hospital staffers. Worst of all, though, Mount Moriah was a Southern hospital, smack in the middle of North Carolina, and Anna Melrose had the audacity to be from Hoboken, New Jersey. She had a rotating cast of boyfriends—often older, sometimes married, always very handsome.
“I don’t know how you can eat those,” Rob flicked his fingers toward Anna’s bran muffin. “I swear those muffins are made from wheat chaff and recycled newspapers.”
“What can I say? My body is a temple,” Anna countered.
“A temple, huh? Must be one of those pagan temples where they have obscene week-long orgies,” Rob said.
“Oh, it’s a pagan temple all right. A temple in which they sacrifice their enemies to dark and powerful gods.” Anna took a huge bite of her muffin. Still chewing, she said, “Just ask my ex-husband.” Anna paused and surveyed Rob’s breakfast—a Tupperware container of chicken wings and a muffin from the commissary. “There is really no justice in this world. You and Lindsay both eat like twelve-year-olds at a slumber party and don’t put on a pound. I even whisper the word ‘Twinkie’ and I have to spend two days in the gym.”
Lindsay vaguely registered this smirch on her eating habits. Rather than defending herself, however, Lindsay merely sighed and began distractedly dragging her spoon through her bowl of Froot Loops.
“Lindsay, are you still depressed that things didn’t work out on your neonatal soldier date?” Rob said. “You look terrible. I mean really, really awful.”
“Aren’t you sweet to be concerned about my well being,” Lindsay said, flashing Rob a syrupy smile while simultaneously kicking his shin under the table. “But it’s not because of Doyle. Doyle was top notch. In fact, I’ve decided that from now on, seven-toed, Zoroastrian teenagers are my type.”
“What is it then? Seriously, you look like a hairball wearing a chaplain’s coat,” Rob said.
“As a matter of fact, I do feel like cat barf. I was up all night. A really nice guy passed away.”
The events of the previous night seemed like a dream. At the beginning of her night shift, Lindsay had fallen into a fitful sleep in the hospital’s tiny chaplain’s bedroom. Around 1 a.m. she had been awaked by a page from the ICU. She had zombie-walked down the dimly lit hallway and up two flights of stairs, passing through the main intensive care room, where the beds’ occupants lay sleeping and still—a row of sarcophagi. At the end of the room, a little hall led to two private rooms. Lindsay knocked on one of the doors.
“Come in,” a woman responded.
Lindsay opened the door. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the fluorescent lights that blazed from the ceiling, illuminating vinyl seat coverings, laminate tables, and curtains that forged an unholy alliance between paisley and polyester. Vernon Young, a plump yet sturdy-looking black man in his early thirties, lay in bed, connected to an array of life-support machines and monitors. Kimberlee Young, his wife, looked up wearily from her sentry post at his bedside. She had an appealing chubbiness and freckles that dotted her pale white skin like confetti. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. “Hey,” Kimberlee sighed.
“Hey,” Lindsay replied. Her natural inclination was to follow this with, “How are you?” but years of chaplaincy training had driven that futile question out of her repertoire. Lindsay joined Kimberlee at Vernon’s bedside. “Would you like me to pray with you?”
“No!” Kimberlee held her hands in front of her as if she were warding off an onrushing mugger. She got herself in check and relaxed her posture slightly. “I mean, no, thank you. I mean, I don’t see how that’s gonna do him any good at this point.”
“The prayer doesn’t have to be for him. It can be a way of pausing to take it all in.” For two long days, Lindsay had shared Kimberlee’s bedside vigil. She had tried in vain several times to encourage Kimberlee to reflect and spend some quiet moments in her husband’s presence.
Once again, Kimberlee resisted. “I don’t need to pause. I’m fine.” The two women sat together in silence, watching the rise and fall of Vernon’s chest. Finally, Kimberlee stirred. “Did you see that Momma brought Vernon his favorite strawberry rhubarb pie?” Kimberlee gestured to the side table. An untouched pie topped with cross-hatched crust glistened under the fluorescent lights. “The man is in a coma, clinging to life, with an IV and a ventilator, and she bakes him a pie. I guess that’s her way of helping, but it’s so depressing for it to sit there like that. It’s such a waste.” She began to cry with a sudden force, as if a giant fist was squeezing the air from her lungs.
Lindsay patted Kimberlee’s shoulder and walked purposefully out the door. The squish-squish of Lindsay’s rubber-soled footsteps diminished as she moved further away down the hall. Her sudden departure silenced Kimberlee’s sobs. She sat staring in astonishment at Lindsay’s empty chair. After a minute or two, Lindsay’s quick steps could be heard advancing back toward the room. Lindsay entered and walked past Kimberlee to the side table, wielding a small, white plastic spork that she had acquired from the nurses’ station. Without saying a word, she plunged the spork into the pie and took a bite of the pink, gooey filling. “That’s the best dang pie I’ve ever eaten,” she said, her mouth stuffed with fruit and pastry. She offered a heaping sporkful to Kimberlee, who looked at her as if she had just squirted Easy Cheese on a communion wafer.
“Would your Vernon want you to sit there crying about a pie?” Lindsay asked. Kimberlee was dry-eyed now, but she continued to stare—silent and slack-jawed—at the chaplain. Lindsay raised her eyebrows expectantly and moved the pie-laden spork closer to Kimberlee. It seemed to hang in the air like a question mark. Finally, unable to hide the beginnings of a smile, Kimberlee held out her hand for the spork. The two women sat in silence, taking turns sporking pie.
Anna interrupted Lindsay’s recollection. “Oh. Did that guy die? Bummer. You were friends with his wife or something, right?”
“Not really. I knew her a little from high school. Her family owns Bullard’s Bar-B-Q Buffet.”
Rob said, “Wait. The guy who died. Are we talking about the black rebel soldier guy, Vernon Young? From the reenactment?”
“Uh-huh,” Lindsay nodded. Her mind flashed back to the smoke-obscured scene the previous Saturday, the confused shouts, the fallen reenactor being loaded into the ambulance, the drips and smears of blood on the sun-parched grass.
“You worked on the guy in the ER, right?” Rob said to Anna.
“Yeah, I was on shift the day of the commemoration last year, too. And the year before. We usually get our fair share of ‘casualties’—you know, sun stroke, dehydration, overly enthusiastic ‘soldiering’ from these middle-aged reenactor types. But I think this guy had to be the first actual Civil War battle death since 1865.
“It was surreal,” she continued. “A chubby black guy in a Confederate uniform rolls in on a gurney, and then his family—this herd of loud, pudgy white people—streamed in.”
“The police spent hours questioning all the guys at the reenactment after you left, Linds. They think the shooting was intentional,” Rob said.
“Intentional?” Anna almost choked on a piece of bran muffin. She gulped some orange juice. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why would someone murder him out there, surrounded by spectators and booths selling funnel cake and airbrushed t-shirts? It was probably an accident. Some Joe Six Pack probably loaded a real cartridge instead of a blank and capped his buddy.”
“Rob’s right,” Lindsay said. “I can’t understand it either, but I was in the room with Vernon’s wife when the police told her. They’re treating the death as suspicious. They’ve opened a murder investigation.”
“There were dozens of soldiers involved in that reenactment. Not to mention all the people watching,” Rob said. “And we’re not talking about a bunch of rednecks who just like running around with guns and waving the rebel flag, either. Some of them are pillars of the community.” He shook his head. “I sure hope the police have some good evidence to go on, because if it was murder, then half the people in the county are suspects.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “‘Half the people in the county are suspects’? You sound like Agatha Christie.”
“Hey, I’m just trying to inject some color into the drab palette of your life,” Rob said.
“Now you sound like an ad for paint.”
Lindsay ignored their bickering and used her spoon to chase the last Froot Loop around her bowl. She thought back to her bedside vigil with Kimberlee Young. Lindsay had sat beside her until dawn, long after the unknown sniper’s bullet had taken Vernon from the world. As she took her leave, Lindsay had said that she wished she could have known Vernon.
“Me, too, sugar,” Kimberlee replied. “You would have loved him. Everyone did.”
Now, as she thought back, Lindsay couldn’t help but see the obvious lie in Kimberlee’s statement. There was most definitely at least one person out there who did not love Vernon Young.
Lindsay woke up in the early evening, just as the sun was beginning to dip behind the row of pine trees facing her living room windows. Whenever she came off a night shift, she spent the following afternoon dozing on the living room couch in her sweatpants. Somehow getting properly decked out in pajamas and climbing into bed seemed like an admission of defeat, but skipping sleep altogether seemed like unnecessary bravado. An afternoon couch nap struck the perfect balance.
Lindsay sat down in her small yellow kitchen, poured herself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, and began flicking through her mail. The handwriting on an oversized envelope caught her eye. It contained a card fronted by a cheerful cartoon drawing of a claw-footed bathtub filled with hippopotami. Inside, the message read, “Hippo Bathday!” The handwritten note below said:
Sorry this is a bit late. You know me—always busy busy busy! Things with me are good but I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a 30 year old daughter!!! Ha ha! Now I’m gonna have to start lying about your age as well as my own. Ha ha!
I’ll be passing your way in a couple weeks and I’d love to get together and catch up. I hope you had a nice birthday!!!
There was a Glamour Shots-style four-by-six inch picture of Lindsay’s mother tucked inside the card. Sarabelle Harding’s image stared into the vague distance at the edge of the frame, avoiding Lindsay’s gaze. Her blonde hair was styled into an attractive cascade of loose curls. Ice blue eyes sparkled from beneath copious false eyelashes. Some kind of gauzy filter had been applied; it erased years of hard living from Sarabelle’s face. Lindsay wondered if, somewhere under that mountain of make-up and behind the photographer’s tricks, Sarabelle retained her fine-boned beauty.
Lindsay examined the envelope. No return address. It had been at least a year since she’d heard from her mother—five or more since they last saw each other in person. A familiar hollowness gnawed at Lindsay’s solar plexus. When Lindsay was six, her parents had been arrested for running a small-scale marijuana operation out of their modest brick house. They were each sentenced to five years in prison, and Lindsay was sent to live with her father’s aged aunt on an island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks of Lindsay’s childhood was nothing like the sunny holiday retreat that Spring Breakers and well-heeled beach house owners rhapsodize over. Until the mid-1980s, there was no real road connecting their small community with the mainland, or even with the adjacent island enclaves of Duck and Kitty Hawk. The scattered full-time residents numbered in the low hundreds; the nearest house with children was half a mile away from Lindsay’s. The intrepid holidaymakers who ventured to Corolla in those early days were mostly middle-aged artists or fishermen, seeking solitude. On the rare occasions when they did make conversation with the locals, it was only to say how charmingly old-fashioned Corolla (they pronounced it ‘Kah-roe-lah’ like the Toyota Corolla) was, and that living on Bodie Island (they pronounced it ‘Bow-dee’ like the skier Bodie Miller) must be like taking a vacation all year round. The locals would snap back that Kuh-raw-luh and Bah-dee Island suited them just fine, thank you very much.
Lindsay and her great aunt—who she called Aunt Harding, never Aunt Patricia—shared a weather-beaten cottage near the northern tip of Bodie Island. Each morning, Aunt Harding would trek off down the sandy path to preside over the sorting and delivery of mail in the island’s small post office. Lindsay would make her own way the several miles to the school bus stop, or, during the summer holidays, spend the days beachcombing. She would find little treasures in the flotsam and keep them in her own secret mermaid’s cave under the front porch steps. Her treasure trove contained everything from chunks of smooth green glass to the sun-bleached skull of a horse. Lindsay’s bleak, windswept childhood had been punctuated by bimonthly visits to the Raleigh prisons that housed each of her parents. On Saturday mornings, she called on her mother at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. At lunchtime, her grim-faced aunt drove her ten minutes down the road to the much-less-grandly-named Central Prison to eat sandwiches and Nutty Bars out of vending machines with her father.
After four years of model behavior and a jailhouse baptism, Lindsay’s father was granted early release from prison and was eventually deemed fit to regain custody of his daughter. Her mother, meanwhile, had an extra year added to her sentence after getting herself involved in a jailhouse gambling ring. When Sarabelle was finally released, the damaged little family attempted to reconcile. Aunt Harding had kept up with the mortgage payments on their small brick ranch house in Mount Moriah, and the three of them returned to live in the now-marijuana-free space. They stalked around the place like caged lions: Lindsay’s father, puffed up with his new-found sense of responsibility and his new-found religion; Lindsay’s mother, with her furtive movements, still a prisoner in her own mind; and Lindsay herself, on the brink of adolescence, a sealed box of roiling emotions. The fragile union lasted eighteen months. Then, one February night, Sarabelle disappeared. Since that time, Sarabelle had haunted Lindsay’s life like a ghost, floating in when it suited her and then vanishing with little trace.
With a sharp snap of her wrist, Lindsay tossed the card, the picture, and the envelope into the trash. She went to her bedroom to change into her running clothes. A moment later, she walked back into the kitchen and retrieved the card, standing it carefully in the kitchen windowsill. Surely Sarabelle remembering Lindsay’s birthday meant something. And she was suggesting that they meet. Maybe she was finally ready to make amends. Lindsay looked at the cheerful hippos, their rotund little bodies distorted by slanting rays of late afternoon sunlight, and allowed herself the merest hint of a smile.
Lindsay’s house stood at the frayed edge of Mount Moriah. The town itself nestled in a little valley among the rolling hills of the Piedmont, the area between North Carolina’s coast and the Appalachians—a collection of buildings and houses orbiting the twin poles of the Mount Moriah Regional Hospital and the Walmart Superstore. There was little hustle and even less bustle. Lindsay lived beyond these orbits, out where the buildings trailed off into an ever thinner sprinkling of mobile homes and dilapidated farmhouses. Her little white house stood alone on an acre of land surrounded on all sides by tall pines and a thicket of dense undergrowth. She thought of it as her own little ship, sailing on a sea of solitude. Only the ship was badly in need of a paint job. And the ocean was mostly made of kudzu.
She stood on the front porch now performing some perfunctory stretches, in preparation for a run. During the summer months, the air remained thick and humid well into the early evening—venture out any time before dusk and you’d feel more like you were swimming than running. The sun was low on the horizon, but there was still at least a good hour of daylight left.
Quickly gathering speed, Lindsay moved out of her neighborhood onto a tree-lined, two-lane road. Within a mile of her house, the houses gave way to tall pines, clay-lined creeks, and the low, rolling hills of the Carolina Piedmont. She passed the last outcropping of Mount Moriah’s version of civilization—a trailer park optimistically called Malibu Village—and crossed the road toward the piece of scrubby pine forest known as the Richards Homestead.
The Homestead, once a profitable tobacco farm, had been gradually sold off over the years to housing developers. What remained was spread over 40 acres and bordered on one side by the interstate. The Richards family, who had made a small fortune in tobacco during the nineteenth century, had long since given up farming and moved into more hospitable surroundings. The land had lain fallow for as long as anyone could remember. The current Richardses lived in an 8-bedroom house in town. There was speculation that they would someday relocate to somewhere fashionable and exciting, like France. Or Winston-Salem. But so far the family seemed content to revel in their status as the social and political royalty of their own little Central Carolina fiefdom.
Lindsay ducked through the wire fence next to the road, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, and picked up one of the old logging paths that crisscrossed the land. As she advanced through the trees, the air became cool and fragrant. The pine trees along the path bore strange scars and deformities, like veterans from some long-forgotten war.
Lulled by the warmth of the evening and the rhythm of her breathing, she almost didn’t see the men at first. But there they were, up ahead, striding swiftly across the clearing—three men dressed in the summer uniforms of Southern white men, khaki pants and short-sleeved button down shirts. They stood very still, looking intently into the trees on the far side of their SUVs. In two years of jogging on these paths, this was the first time Lindsay had seen anyone out here. She stopped in her tracks, observing them almost in awe.
One of the three men walked to his gleaming SUV and retrieved a rifle from somewhere in the back. He crouched next to his vehicle, out of the range of Lindsay’s vision. She wondered if they could be out-of-season poachers—a not uncommon occurrence on private forest land like this. She dismissed the thought quickly. They were far too brazen, and they were obviously not dressed for hunting. After a few moments, the report of the gun exploded through the heavy evening air. Lindsay involuntarily ducked, even though the shot was in the opposite direction of her. The men jumped up, whooping and high-fiving. They talked for a minute more and drove away in their separate, shiny SUVs, kicking up a dusty haze in their wake.
Lindsay remained still until the sound of the engines was replaced by the chirp of crickets. When she was quite sure that they were gone, she ran swiftly across the clearing toward the spot that the shooter seemed to have been targeting. She walked along the tree line, peering into the rapidly darkening stretch of forest. There was a rustling from a clump of bushes that stood at the base of a gnarled tree. Her pulse quickened. She moved toward the bushes as if pulled along by an invisible rope. Under the cover of the trees, there was very little daylight left. She crept closer, trying to still her pounding heart. The rustling continued intermittently. She was now within yards of the movement’s source.
Suddenly, as if it had been shot from a cannon, a small, dappled doe burst out of the thicket of bushes and sprinted straight at Lindsay. Lindsay dove sideways, her body slamming hard into the ground. The doe, too, zigzagged to avoid a collision. Lindsay scrambled around on the ground and eventually regained her footing, but by then the animal had disappeared into the darkness of the forest. Lindsay began to brush the dust off of her bare arms and legs. She stopped as her hands made contact with something sticky. Blood. It dotted her body like gruesome confetti. She followed the trail of blood with her eyes. Some of it led toward the bushes, some of it away, in the direction the injured animal had bolted. Lindsay shivered in spite of the oppressive heat. Those men had shot the deer without care or reason. Worse still, they hadn’t had the compassion to finish the job. As quickly as she could, Lindsay turned around and ran home. As she ran, she tried to forget the terrible fear in the doe’s eyes. She ran and ran, as the darkness swallowed up the daylight in ravenous gulps.
When Lindsay arrived for her shift at the hospital the following day, Geneva Williams accosted her in the small, windowless office that, along with the sleeping room, made up the chaplains’ quarters.
“Girl! I have found him! Don’t you say no, because he is perfect.”
Lindsay’s co-worker wagged her finger forcefully to emphasize each phrase. Lindsay’s stomach sank. Geneva, a sprightly black woman in her late sixties, was determined to find Lindsay a husband. Every time a new man joined the hospital’s staff, Geneva would covertly investigate his marital status and his interests, all with an eye toward preventing Lindsay from ending up, as she put it, “A sorry old spinster living out your days with a dozen cats and sack full of knitting.”
“I have married off three daughters and four sons,” Geneva said. “All happy. Fifteen grandchildren. No divorces.”
“I know. You’ve mentioned that. Frequently,” Lindsay replied.
“I just want to make sure you heard me. One-hundred percent happy. Zero percent divorces. You cannot argue with statistics. Now then, sit down and let me tell you about your future husband.”
Lindsay groaned, but obediently took a seat at one of the two compact, wooden desks that furnished the office. Although Geneva only stood 4’ 11”, she was a formidable woman. The daughter of sharecroppers, she’d put herself through teacher’s college and taught second grade at the all-black school in New Albany, a larger town not far from Mount Moriah. After she married, she and her husband settled down to become the co-pastors of their own small evangelical ministry, The New Holiness Temple of Blessed Deliverance.
After her husband’s death the previous year, Geneva had ceded full-time pastoring to one of her daughters and decided that instead of retiring, she would shift her focus to ministering to the sick and the bereaved as a hospital chaplain. As the head of the pastoral services department at the hospital, Rob had previously instituted a policy that all full-time hospital chaplains and chaplain residents at Mount Moriah had to hold a graduate degree in theology, be ordained in a recognized denomination, and have interned in a hospital, prison, or hospice. Somehow, though, here was Geneva, a recently-minted chaplain resident, with only a K through 9 teaching certificate and the formidable force of her personality. Geneva was undergoing the intensive, self-analytical process of chaplaincy training called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. She had finished the first unit, which allowed her to begin her residency, and she was still technically under the supervision of the more senior chaplains. This technicality, however, did nothing to diminish Geneva’s unquestioned, vigorously self-promoted authority in matters of courtship and marriage.
“His name is Drew Checkoway,” Geneva began. “Tall, dark, and handsome. He’s a brain surgeon, girl! Which means smart. And rich. Thirty-five years old, never married, no kids. It doesn’t happen every day that a quality man like this drops into our laps.”
Lindsay couldn’t deny the truth of this last statement. Although Mount Moriah’s population had grown increasingly fluid and cosmopolitan in recent years, the arrival of a young, eligible man was still an occasion to be met with heightened interest. Clearly this guy was too good to be true. “Probably gay,” Lindsay said.
“Don’t you think that that was the first thing I checked up on? What am I? Some kind of amateur? Not gay, girl. You got to get yourself that man. Carpe Brain Surgeon. I already seen some of the nurses batting their little eyes at him. Drew Checkoway. Remember it because that’s your future children’s daddy’s name.”
“I’ll be sure to look out for him.”
“Do. Now I gotta go. Rob’s been on me to write up an entry for my reflection journal. Wants me to reflect on my feelings about having to do a reflection journal. I swear the boy is trifling with me. Sometimes I have to pray to Jesus to help me restrain myself from whooping his little behind with a hickory switch. I really do. Maybe I’ll write about that in my journal entry.” As Geneva opened the door to leave, she turned her head back to look at Lindsay and said, “Mrs. Lindsay Checkoway. Even sounds good. Hope you aren’t one of those women who keeps her name when she gets married. Can’t stand that. Makes it too confusing to know who belongs with who. Mrs. Lindsay Checkoway, then.” Geneva spoke these last words with such conviction that Lindsay felt sure that, in Geneva’s mind at least, the future was as stone-solid as the Ten Commandments.
Lindsay didn’t have to wait long to meet the much-heralded Dr. Drew Checkoway. A few hours into her shift, as she made her way up to the oncology unit to visit a patient, Lindsay ran into Anna in the hallway. While the two women were chatting, a tall man with sparkling green eyes approached them. His black hair was collected into a trendy configuration of stacks and spikes; his face sported a calculatedly rugged amount of stubble. The precision of his grooming, and particularly the deliberate semi-beardage, reminded Lindsay vaguely of George Michael’s post-Wham! period. Lindsay’s hackles were raised.
“Hello, Dr. Melrose,” the man said, smiling broadly. It was a sweet smile, a bit lopsided. Lindsay cautiously lowered one hackle.
“Call me Anna, please. Dr. Melrose sounds old. And far more mature and responsible than I actually am.”
“Well, Anna,” he said, laughing, “I think I’m lost. This hospital is about half the size of the one I worked at in Chicago, but it’s at least ten times as confusing. I was just walking down a hall that ended in a staircase that led up to a brick wall.” Okay. He was charming and self-effacing. He glanced at Lindsay. Actually, she decided, he was more Greek god than 80s pop.
“Ah, yes,” Anna said, oblivious to the movements of Lindsay’s hackles. “That stairway used to lead to Pediatrics, but they tore it down when they built the new children’s floor. Apparently, the staircase is holding up something important, and can’t be demolished without taking half the building with it. Which way are you headed?”
“Allegedly there is an MRI machine on this floor, and allegedly I cannot miss it.”
“I’ll take you,” Lindsay said, perhaps a little too eagerly. “I’m going that way.”
“I’d better be getting back to the ER,” Anna said. “There’s probably an oozing sore or obstructed bowel down there with my name on it. I’ll catch you guys later.”
As they walked along the corridor, he extended his hand. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Drew Checkoway.”
She shook his hand. “Lindsay Harding. I’m one of the chaplains here.”
“Oh! Someone told me about you.”
Lindsay panicked, fearing that Geneva may have informed Drew of their imminent wedding.
“Yeah, one of the other doctors said I should always recommend that nervous patients talk to you before they have surgery, even if they’re not religious, because you calm them down. I have to say, I didn’t expect you to be so young. The community hospital I worked at in Chicago was in a mainly Catholic neighborhood, so the chaplains were usually old celibate dudes with black clothes and pot bellies. None of them looked like you, that’s for sure.”
Trying to ignore the flaming redness rising in her, Lindsay launched into a rambling chronicle of Mount Moriah Regional Medical Center’s history. It had been founded as a small rural clinic just after the First World War. Up until the 1960s, it stayed essentially unchanged, delivering the county’s babies and patching up the injured. That all changed in 1962, when the matriarch of the wealthy Richards family was stricken with bone cancer. The woman needed a lengthy, specialized course of treatment that the little clinic was unable to provide. After months of travelling back and forth for treatment, she finally died at a hospital in Boston, far from her home and family. Her husband became the benefactor of the new Mount Moriah Regional Medical Center and the family’s large endowments had kept the hospital ticking ever since.
Lindsay finished her recitation just as they reached a large glass door marked Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
“Well, this is where you get off,” she said. Normally, she wouldn’t have even registered the double entendre, but somehow in Drew’s presence, it seemed to hang in the air like an invitation. Lindsay blushed.
Drew didn’t seem to notice her embarrassment; he was already peering through the glass door. “Thanks a lot. When I heard that Mount Moriah had a 12T MRI machine, I had to see it for myself. And all the reconstructive surgeries here are planned using a 320-slice CT scanner, with 16-centimeter anatomical coverage!” He paused, noticing Lindsay’s blank expression. “Sorry. I should’ve tested the waters first with a few discreet references to biomechanics before I unfurled the whole Über-nerd package.”
Lindsay laughed. “It’s great that you’re so enthusiastic.”
“That’s why I took this job. My hospital in Chicago was so under-funded. I was tired of trying to perform brain surgeries using a spatula and a piece of fishing line. I can’t get over the money that flows through this place.”
“A century and a half of exploited labor and a whole lot of lung cancer will buy you some pretty cool gadgets,” Lindsay said.
Drew raised an eyebrow.
“The Richardses, our generous benefactors, come from a long line of tobacco farmers and cigarette oligarchs. They were the ‘R’ in R&G American Cigarettes. The current generous benefactor, Silas Richards IV, sold his stake in the company and is now the distinguished state representative from the 64th District. The Richards family’s money, plus Silas’s political position, keeps the spigot of funding flowing freely to the hospital.”
“A hospital funded by cigarette money. Like the mob building cathedrals in Sicily.” Drew shrugged. “Well, I’d better get going. Hope to see you around again. If I ever find my way back to my office from here, that is.”
Lindsay walked back down the hall and through the doors of the oncology ward. “Lindsay Checkoway,” she whispered to herself. Geneva was right; it didn’t sound half bad.
As Lindsay walked out to the hospital parking lot after her shift that evening, Rob called her cell phone.
“What are you doing tonight? We’re taking Old Joe to the Mex-itali.”
The Mex-itali was the best Mexican restaurant in Mount Moriah. It was also the best Italian restaurant in Mount Moriah. It was also the only Mexican or Italian restaurant in Mount Moriah.
“I wish I could. You know how I love eating tacos marinara while listening to Joe Tatum’s views on al-Qaeda’s involvement in the moon landing conspiracy. But I have to stop in and see Kimberlee Young. You know, Vernon’s wife? She’s asked me to do the memorial service.”
“Your life is just a nonstop party, Chaplain Harding. Let the good times roll!”
Lindsay walked toward her car, an ancient, electric blue Toyota Tercel. Visiting hours were winding down and the lot was half empty. She could see a piece of folded paper tucked under the windshield wiper. Her first thought was that it was an advertisement. The local dry cleaning place was always papering parked cars with 2-for-1 deals. She idly plucked it from the windshield with one hand while fishing in her purse for her keys with the other hand. Rather than the glossy advertising paper she expected, though, she found herself holding a piece of lined notepaper. A bit of the edge was frayed where it had been torn from a spiral-bound notebook. She stopped rummaging in her purse and opened the folded sheet. In small, cramped handwriting, she read the message:
We know you got the money honey. When the time comes nobody needs to get hurt. Nobody even needs to know.
Lindsay had no idea what the note meant. She had no money. She could barely afford her monthly student loan payments. Even more than the strange content, though, it was the writing itself that unsettled her. It wasn’t so much the implied threat. It was the way the words were etched so violently into the paper that in places they tore right through it.
With rising panic, Lindsay looked around her. At the edge of the parking lot, in the shadow of a tall tree, a lone man stood. He was tall and whip-thin, wearing a denim jacket despite the heat. He stared straight at her, unmoving. He raised his hand to light the cigarette that was perched on his lips. He was only about 30 feet from her, but Lindsay couldn’t make out the details of his face. When he brought the lighter toward his mouth, she gave out an involuntary gasp. The light from the flame made his large, round eyes glitter an iridescent green, like the eyes of an insect. Lindsay and the stranger stared at each other for a long moment. He continued to smoke his cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs with each inhale. Lindsay didn’t take her eyes off of him as she frantically rifled through her purse, still searching for her car keys. She found them at last, and, with trembling hands, unlocked the car door. She hurtled her body inside and locked the door behind her. She cranked the engine and peeled out of the parking lot, trying to put some clear distance between herself and the green-eyed stranger.
Lindsay was still shaken by the strange note and the man with the insect eyes as she pulled off the main road into the Youngs’ neighborhood. She had briefly toyed with the idea of reporting the incident to the police, but she realized that, in fact, there was nothing to report. A bizarre unsigned note. A bug-eyed man who may well have just stepped into a shady spot for a smoke break. Creepy? Yes. Criminal? No.
The Youngs’ street—a block over from the high school that Kimberlee and Lindsay had attended—was filled with identical-looking houses, each fronted by a well-tended patch of lawn. Kimberlee lived in a modest two-story colonial that was painted the color of fresh-churned butter. Kimberlee answered the door smiling broadly. “Lord almighty! It’s hotter than Matt Damon in a pair of tight jeans out here! Get yourself on into the air conditioning.”
Lindsay was grateful for the cheerful greeting. It helped to banish the lingering unease brought about by the note. However, when she looked closer, she observed Kimberlee’s vacant-eyed exuberance: tight smile, carefully styled hair, bright makeup. Her expression brought to mind dance music that continued to play long after everyone had left the party.
Kimberlee pulled Lindsay inside and gestured to the pink overstuffed leather sofa that took up the better part of the living room. “Have a seat. I’m so glad you could do this. Our family has never been real religious. Growing up, Sunday was our only day off from the restaurant, so we always went down to the lake or out to the movies. I guess pulled pork and sweetcorn fritters were our religion.” She laughed feebly at her own joke. “I thought we should have some kind of preacher to do the service, though, to make it seem more, you know, official.” She laughed again, a tinny, mirthless laugh. “Can I get you anything? Some sweet tea? My sisters came by this afternoon, and they brought some berry cobbler. Do you want a piece?”
“No, I’m all right, thanks.”
“Have some fruit, then,” Kimberlee said, extracting a fruit basket from among the vases of condolence flowers that covered the massive coffee table. “One of Vernon’s reenactor friends sent this over.”
“Thanks.” Lindsay reluctantly took a small bunch of grapes. She knew from long experience that it was rare to escape the home of a fellow Southern woman without facing an artillery barrage of cakes, sandwiches, and sweet tea—the Southern version of iced tea that involved adding as much granulated sugar as the laws of physics and chemistry would allow to the beverage before chilling it. It was better to surrender as quickly as possible rather than risk the full hospitality assault. To resist was to invite confrontation with a cold ham and three kinds of pie. Plucking a grape from the bunch, Lindsay asked, “How is your family doing? I could see how close y’all are when they came by to visit.”
Kimberlee had three sisters and a brother. They all lived in the area, and they all worked, in one capacity or another, at the family’s barbecue restaurant. Keith, at forty the eldest of the clan, was the general manager. Kimberlee’s sisters, Kathilee, and the twins—Kristalene and Kennadine—were busy with their young children, but they found time to wait tables, bake pies, or deliver catering orders. Kimberlee’s parents, Versa and Buford Bullard, did the lion’s share of the cooking.
“I can’t tell you how shocked everybody is. The restaurant has been closed since it happened. It’s the first time I ever remember Momma and Daddy closing when it wasn’t a Sunday or Christmas. They all loved Vernon. He didn’t have any family of his own, really, just some cousins up in Philadelphia, so Momma and Daddy were like parents to him. And he was so good with all the little nieces and nephews. They just worshipped the ground he walked on. They can’t believe their Uncle Vernon is gone.”
“And you? How have you been holding up?”
“I think I’m okay. Or, I should probably say, I’m okay unless I think. If I can just manage to keep moving every minute for the rest of my life, I’ll be fine.” Kimberlee tried to laugh, but her voice cracked and the sound emerged as more of a squeak. “Speaking of which, let’s get down to business. We’ll have the memorial service and a luncheon in the atrium at the country club. Silas Richards arranged that for us. He and Vernon were buddies from the reenacting group. I’ve put together some songs and poems and things for the service.” She picked up a small stack of papers and laid them out on the coffee table. “Vernon liked old-timey songs and poems. But I don’t want any of those Jesus-y, ‘everything is great now because you’re up in heaven’ hymns. Everything is not great and I want him here with me, not up on a cloud strumming on some golden harp. That’s a giant crock of…” She caught herself and looked across at Lindsay. “No offense.”
“It’s just that if one more person tells me that Vernon is in a better place now, I’m gonna set my hair on fire. I’d rather keep the service light and fun. You’ll be like an emcee,” Kimberlee said brightly, as if she were asking Lindsay to read the announcements at the Rotary Club Fourth of July Picnic.
The diminished role Kimberlee envisioned for her did not bother Lindsay. In fact, she would have been greatly relieved not to have to try to think of profound words that would somehow encapsulate the grief and turmoil caused by Vernon’s untimely and violent death. However, she felt compelled to press Kimberlee on the issue. She had seen too many bereft people try to rush through the grieving process. They would just keep patching the cracks in the concrete of their psyches until one day the weight of their loss would crash down and crush them.
“I agree that a celebration of life is appropriate,” Lindsay said gently. “But I wonder whether you might want to slow down a little? Including prayer or meditation in the service, along with a nice eulogy, might give you and others a chance to engage with your loss.”
Kimberlee threw Lindsay’s words back at her. “I don’t want to ‘engage with my loss.’ I want the whole thing to be uplifting. Like a party, without mentioning about the way he died. That’s all just too ugly to talk about and my husband doesn’t deserve a memorial with ugliness.”
Lindsay decided to continue the conversation later; there was a steeliness in Kimberlee’s expression that was going to be tough to break through. “The tone will be a reflection of the life he lived.” Lindsay changed the subject. “Have you planned the burial yet?”
“No. The coroner still hasn’t told me when they’re going to release Vernon’s body. Could be another week yet, and I’m not waiting on them. Whenever that comes, we’ll just do something small. Just with the family.”
Kimberlee paused and took Lindsay’s hand. “I’m really glad that we are getting to know each other. Funny that we didn’t socialize very much in high school. It’s a real shame. I guess we moved in different circles.”
“Yeah.” Lindsay smiled. “You were popular and on homecoming court. My extracurricular activities were smoking and sulking under the baseball bleachers. Different circles.”
“I don’t know why you hung out with that crowd, honey. They were losers.” Kimberlee paused for a moment noting Lindsay’s raised eyebrows. “Don’t act like you don’t know that. They didn’t have one single thing going for them, bless their hearts. I always thought you were destined for better things. You had brains. And you were a lot better looking than the other girls in that group. Like Hunchback Heather or that Dracula girl. What was her name?”
“Julee Rae Janson,” Lindsay said. “She dances at the Commodore’s Lounge down by Statesville now, and I think that Dracula cape is part of her, um, act.” Lindsay started peeling the skins from her grapes, piercing each one with her thumbnail and extracting the flesh inside. “I think my daddy being who he was had something to do with how I acted back then. And the whole thing with my parents. It wasn’t exactly a recipe for social acceptance in a small-town school. I guess I identified more with the ‘losers’. They didn’t ask questions.”
Before Kimberlee could reply, there was a sharp knock at the door. Kimberlee leaned back and parted the vertical blinds on the window behind the couch with her fingers. She let out a startled little gasp. “Oh gosh. It’s the police.”
Kimberlee walked quickly to the door, muttering half to Lindsay and half to herself. “My brain has up and removed itself from my head. I completely forgot they were sending someone around tonight.” She fluffed her already-voluminous hair and arranged her heavily made-up features into a smile before opening the door. “Well knock me down with a feather! If it isn’t Warren Satterwhite! Don’t tell me that you are the police. Look at you, all handsome and grown.” She let out an appreciative whistle. “Still skinnier than a snake on stilts, though. Look who it is, Lindsay. This is turning into a regular high school reunion!” A pale, red-haired man loped into the room. He was thin and slightly gangly, with even features and warm brown eyes. Kimberlee gestured to the couch. “I know you remember Lindsay Harding. You two knew each other back in the day, as I recall.”
“Well this sure is a surprise!” Warren exclaimed. “When did you get back into town? You were living up in Columbus, right?”
Lindsay rose from the couch and hugged her old friend. “Yep, I was up North for a few years after I graduated from college. But I’ve been back in Mount Moriah for a few years now. Have you been here that whole time? I can’t believe we haven’t run into each other.”
“I’m over in New Albany. I don’t get over this way much and when I do, I’m afraid it’s only for work. I work on violent crimes—thugs and drugs—so I tend not to see ‘normal’ people very regularly. At least not while they’re still alive.” A flush rose in his cheeks, highlighting a smattering of freckles. “Sorry, Kimberlee. I really am sorry about your loss.”
“Of course, honey.”
Lindsay registered a bizarre disconnect in Kimberlee’s expression. For a moment, the lower half of Kimberlee’s face was fixed into a polite smile. Her eyes, however, flashed like daggers.
Kimberlee cleared her throat. “So, is there any news on the investigation?”
“The SBI lab over down in Raleigh is still running some tests on all those reenacting guns we collected out there, but we haven’t turned up anything.”
“Why don’t you come in and sit down awhile? Lindsay here was just having some fruit. What can I get you? I’ve got cold chicken and berry cobbler. Do you want a sandwich? Some sweet tea?”
“I’m all right, thanks.”
“I’ll just make you up a little plate, then.”
Kimberlee flitted off to the kitchen. Hearing the clinking of cutlery and the opening of the fridge, Lindsay realized now how lucky she was to escape with only a fruit basket.
“It’s a real pleasant surprise to see you here, Lindsay. I didn’t know you and Kimberlee were friends.”
“I’ve run into her a few times over the years, but only in passing. I’m a chaplain at the hospital. Kimberlee called me up when they brought Vernon in, and I stayed with her while he was in a coma and when he passed away. Now I’m doing the memorial service.”
“A chaplain? I can’t believe nobody told me that! I guess it’s been a long time since I ran into anybody from the old crowd.”
“They probably wouldn’t remember me, anyway. You were the only jock who condescended to talk to me.”
“Condescended, hell! If it wasn’t for you, I never would have passed Trigonometry. And thank goodness I did pass. After I wrecked my elbow pitching senior year, all the big schools that had been dangling scholarship offers suddenly disappeared. Wofford was the only place that would have me, because I had halfway decent grades. Without a college education, I never could have made sergeant this fast. So I owe my whole career to Lindsay Harding, the math whiz!”
Lindsay rolled her eyes. “I’m sure all of your success as a police officer is down to the Trig homework I helped you with when we were sixteen.”
“Absolutely,” Warren said, nodding earnestly. “People think police work is all clues and leads and suspects, but really, we solve a lot of cases with cosines and tangents. We plug all the variables into a special computer, do some calculations, and it spits out a list of suspects.”
“Um, no,” Warren said, laughing good-naturedly. “That would at least make things interesting. We get at most three murders a year, and usually the suspects are just obvious. Two guys argue over a girl in a bar. One of them ends up beaten to Jell-O salad with a tire iron. You search the other guy’s car and find a bloody tire iron. Case closed. Every once in awhile, one comes my way that takes a little more proving—someone killed for the insurance money or something. A couple years ago, I had a woman try to put out a hit on her ex-husband over custody of their cockatoo. Ninety-nine percent of the time, though, it ain’t exactly CSI. The real hard part is doing everything exactly by the book so the charges will stand up in court.”
Kimberlee returned, bearing two plates laden with sandwiches, fried chicken, coleslaw, and pie.
“You looked hungry, Lindsay, so I brought you a little something.” She took a seat on the pink leather La-Z-Boy chair opposite them. “Well, Warren, what is it you want to know?”
“We just need to find out a little more about Vernon,” Warren began, opening a small, spiral-bound notebook. “What he did, who his friends were. I know you already went over a lot of this with the Mount Moriah police, but there are still a few pieces missing. I wanted to talk to you more informal, you see, because we know each other from way back.”
“All right, then. Shoot,” Kimberlee said.
“Well, I’ll start with an easy one. How did you and Vernon meet?”
Lindsay sensed an undercurrent of seriousness in Warren’s tone that belied his friendly words. She suddenly felt out of place. “Should I leave you guys to hash through this?” she asked.
“No, honey,” Kimberlee said. “Just sit yourself down and enjoy your food. I’m sure this won’t take long.” She turned to Warren and began an exhaustive retelling of her early courtship with Vernon, detailing everything from what Vernon wore when she first saw him (“…jean shorts and a light blue polo shirt and light blue is my favorite color so I knew that was a good sign…”) to the pizza toppings on the first meal they shared (“…pepperoni with mushroom and extra cheese, and I said, ‘That’s my favorite, too,’ and Vernon said…”).
“How did you end up going to college in Boston, anyway?” Warren asked, trying to derail a blow-by-blow recounting of Kimberlee and Vernon’s fourth date.
“It was a music conservatory. I got a scholarship for banjo performance. My sister Kathilee went there, too. Don’t you remember? We used to play at school assemblies and stuff. The Bullard Banjettes?”
Warren flipped through his notes. “As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask you about that very thing. Didn’t you gals usually play at the reenactment?”
“Yes, sir. I was there every year for the past 13 years. Except for this one.” Kimberlee paused. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to redo that day since it happened. Maybe if I had been there, I would have noticed something. Maybe I would have seen Vernon fall and made them check on him sooner.” As she spoke these last words, Kimberlee’s joviality rushed out of her. She sat for a moment, her hazel eyes suddenly the color of thunderclouds.
“Why didn’t y’all play this year?” Warren pressed.
“Well, the Banjettes did play. All except me. We had a catering order to get out for that evening. Silas Richards’s daughter’s pre-engagement party? They’re having the real engagement party in a couple of weeks out at the country club, so this was the pre-engagement one where all of them that are planning the real engagement party can get together. The groom is from New Albany. Morgan Partee? Maybe you know him? His daddy owns Partee Auto World? Anyway, Momma couldn’t fix all the food and pack it up by herself so I stayed at the restaurant and helped her cook.”
“It was your idea to stay behind?”
“I think it was Vernon who suggested it. Or maybe Momma,” she said with a vague wave of her hand. “I can’t rightly recall.”
“Couldn’t somebody else have helped your mother so that you could perform at the reenactment? You guys have some hired help out there, don’t you?”
“Well, I suppose one of the guys that work in the kitchen could have stayed behind, but they all wanted to go out to the reenactment with their kids. They all have kids, you see, and that Civil War stuff is fun for them,” Kimberlee replied.
“You didn’t like watching the reenactments?”
“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. I mean, I’m glad Vernon had a hobby that he enjoyed so much, but that was his thing, not mine.”
“So you just worked at the restaurant all day with your mother?”
“Yes, I told you that already,” Kimberlee said.
Lindsay was feeling increasingly uncomfortable as Warren’s pretence of a friendly chat began to fall away. It was now clear that there was a deeper motive behind his visit. Warren also seemed to sense Kimberlee’s darkening mood, and he changed his tack. He took a bite of fried chicken smacked his lips. “Now that is a beautiful piece of poultry. I swear the Bullards can do voodoo with a deep fryer.” He settled himself back into the pink leather couch. “Now then, how did Vernon get interested in reenacting?”
“It was the movie Glory, really,” said Kimberlee, brightening a little. “You know? The one with Morgan Freeman? Even in his history classes in college, Vernon had never heard that black soldiers played such a big part in the actual fighting of the war. He did some looking and next thing I knew he’d up and joined with the U.S. Troops Colored Infantry Regiment in Massachusetts.
“Keith, my brother, is a big history buff, too. When we moved back here last year, he and Vernon thought it would be funny if Vernon switched to the other side. It was kind of a joke at first between them—a black rebel soldier. Vernon found out, though, that there were a few black guys who fought on the Confederate side. Slaves that went into battle alongside their masters and some free blacks who sided with the South for whatever reason. He and Keith signed up together to start reenacting with the local group here.
“A lot of the reenactors take on personas, you know. They pretend to be a specific person from history. Vernon’s ‘impression’—that’s what their pretend self is called—was based on an actual guy from North Carolina, from Alamance county, in fact. A freed slave named Samuel Wilcox who kept a journal about his life. Vernon was researching every detail he could find about that man’s life. I can’t say I ever understood the appeal of any of it. Who wants to spend their free time reading some dusty old book? But he loved it. Every spare weekend, he’d pass hours in the library—finding out what Samuel Wilcox ate for breakfast on a Monday morning in 1862. That kind of thing. He spent so much time and money scouring eBay and all these specialized reenacting sites for the right kind of clothes to wear. And then going out to these events every few months.”
“Sounds like a serious hobby. He must have been pretty gung ho.”
“Oh, he liked to be authentic, in terms of the history stuff and the clothes, but he wasn’t really hardcore. Not compared to some others. His regiment was mostly farby guys.”
“Far be it from authentic. Farbs. That’s what the real hardcore guys call guys like Vernon. The Hardcores sleep outside before the battles and spoon together in the dirt to keep warm. They go number two outside.” She pursed her lips, clearly horrified. “They even starve themselves to look thin, like real soldiers. Vernon liked his indoor plumbing and he was most certainly never one for starving himself!”
Lindsay wondered if her erstwhile date, Doyle, might eventually become a Hardcore. Certainly peeing on your clothing must be some kind of gateway excretion. It was a slippery slope between that and al fresco pooping.
“Still, you said that his reenacting took up a lot of his time and money.” Warren said.
“He did spend a fair amount of money on it, but I don’t reckon it was any worse a hobby than golf or fishing.”
“And money was not a problem for you guys?”
Kimberlee eyed him warily. Asking about another person’s intimate marital finances was not a fitting thing to do in mixed company. A Southerner should know better. “We did all right.”
Warren would not be bought off with this evasive half-reply. “How good is all right?”
Kimberlee frowned, regarding Warren as one might regard a child who takes off his pants at a church picnic. “Well, if you must know, we did quite well. When we moved back down here, Vernon worked for the city manager’s office, with their databases. He had an idea, though, that Momma and Daddy could expand Bullard’s catering business by doing fancy barbecues at people’s houses. I remember he said that he wanted to ‘bring down-home nostalgia food to the Southern Living crowd’. Momma and Daddy didn’t cotton on at first, but they let him try it out. He printed up some fancy menus on real thick, shiny paper. They made Bullard’s food sound like something from a French bistro. ‘Pulled pork and vinegar sauce’ became ‘slow-smoked, fork-shredded shoulder of Carolina pork, served in cider jus’. Instead of using Styrofoam plates and paper napkins, he served the food on china and poured the sweet tea with crystal pitchers. It caught on faster than a deer tick on a dog’s behind. After that first summer, he quit his job and started working full-time for Bullard’s. Since then, the money’s been good.”
“Kimberlee, this question’s real important. Was there anyone that didn’t like Vernon? Any disagreements with any of the other reenactors?”
“Of course not,” she said defensively. “Everyone loved him. He was a real nice and friendly person. They all were. We’ve had them over to the house for cookouts, for heaven’s sake. All of them got along.” She crossed her arms and turned toward Lindsay. “You know, this is just like TV. They always ask if the victim had any enemies. Why do police always ask that?” She turned back toward Warren and continued, “Wouldn’t I have already told you right away if there was somebody I thought could have killed him?”
“I’m sure you would have. But sometimes it’s not obvious. When people cast their minds back over things, after something has happened, sometimes it changes how you see things. Can you do that for me a second? Just think about the last few weeks and think if there was anything at all unusual. Did Vernon act strange? Any unusual phone calls at the house? Anything at all? Just close your eyes a minute and think on it.”
Kimberlee frowned, but dutifully closed her eyes. She nodded her head slightly back and forth, as if she were watching the past play like a silent film across her mind. After a moment, she stopped and her eyes sprang open suddenly.
“You know, I almost don’t want to say this, because I don’t want to admit that you were right about the remembering, but I do remember something. I’m not going to say ‘It’s probably nothing,’ because that’s what they say on TV when they think of the thing that they didn’t think of before. Vernon said that he’d read something in that diary—Samuel Wilcox’s—that he said was going to be big. That a lot of people would be real interested. He was excited over it. More than excited, even. Agitated, is what I’d say. He didn’t want to say too much about it right then, he said, because he wanted to look into it some more. I never really asked about his history stuff, because it was about as interesting to me as a tree made out of wood. I only remember it because of how he was acting.”
“I don’t suppose you have a copy of that diary?”
“’fraid not. It’s a one-of-a-kind type of thing. They keep it in a special room down at the county library. Vernon had to go down there whenever he wanted to look at it.”
“Did Vernon keep notes?”
“Not that I know of. I think he just read it.”
Warren jotted a few things down in his notebook and then flicked the cover shut. “Well, I think that’s about all for tonight. It was real nice to see you again, even under these circumstances. I hope we’ll have some news for you real soon.”
Lindsay looked down and noticed that Warren had eaten everything on his plate.
“You know, it’s gotten awful late somehow,” Kimberlee said, yawning. “Why don’t we take care of all this memorial stuff tomorrow, Lindsay? Do you have some time? I don’t want you driving home in the pitch darkness.”
“That’d be fine. I can stop by in the afternoon, after work,” Lindsay said. She was enormously grateful to be let off the hook, as she was already having trouble keeping her eyes open. Night shifts always threw off her body clock for days afterward. She rose to leave.
Warren stood as well, but then caught sight of the papers on the table upon which Kimberlee had printed the readings and songs for the memorial service. “The Soldier’s Last Battle. That’s one of my favorite poems. Did you print this out?”
“Yes, it’s for the memorial service. I found it online somewhere and I remembered that Vernon had liked it.”
“Would you mind if I took this? Can you print another copy for yourself?”
“Sure, be my guest.”
“Thanks for the food. Make sure you call me if you think of anything else.”
Lindsay and Warren walked away from the Youngs’ house into the twilit evening. The dissonant music of crickets and locusts filled the air. At the bottom of the Youngs’ driveway, Lindsay turned toward Warren.
“I didn’t want to ask inside because I didn’t want to upset Kimberlee, but why do the police think that it’s murder?” Lindsay thought back to yesterday’s conversation with Anna and Rob. “Couldn’t it just have been an accident? Maybe someone just used real bullets instead of blanks?”
“Not likely. Right before any reenactment each company’s officers do a safety check where they inspect all the weapons. Every guy who was out there swears that they did the check that day, and that nothing was out of the ordinary with any of the weapons. We collected all the guns that were used, just in case. The State Bureau of Investigation has already started doing ballistics comparisons to see if any of them could have fired the bullet that killed Vernon. But regardless of how those tests turn out, we have reason to believe someone had it in for Vernon.”
“I can’t really talk about it.”
“Oh, come on. We’re old friends,” Lindsay said. “Without me, you’d be nothing, remember?” Warren remained silent. Lindsay batted her eyes coquettishly. “Pretty please, with molasses on top?” Still no response from Warren. “This is my best Southern belle impression, Warren Satterwhite. I can’t believe this doesn’t have you eating out of my hand.” She crossed her arms and frowned. “If you’re waiting for me to flash my petticoat, it’s not going to happen.” Warren stayed mum, mirroring Lindsay’s crossed arms and allowing only the slightest hint of a smile to creep across his face. Lindsay altered her tactics, putting her hands on her hips. “As a chaplain and a bone fide minister, I’m a professional secret keeper. It comes with the territory. You wouldn’t believe some of the death bed confessions I’ve heard.”
Lindsay shrugged. “Now, I wouldn’t be a very good secret keeper if I tattled that easy.” Lindsay’s coy smile melted into an earnest expression. “Honestly, you can tell me what you know about Vernon. I’m not just asking out of idle curiosity. I really like Kimberlee, and Vernon seems like he was a wonderful person. I want to understand why this happened to them.”
Warren softened. “You would need to keep this totally secret, even from Kimberlee. Especially from Kimberlee.”
“I am a woman of the cloth. Trust me.” She held her hands in prayer position in front of her chest and cast her eyes piously up to the sky.
“A week or so before the shooting, Vernon came in to talk to one of the officers in Mount Moriah. He brought a note that contained some very specific threats against his life.”
He looked at her hard, his lips clenched in a narrow line. “The gist was that if his black self knew what was good for him, he’d better stop parading around with that white wife of his. There was something about his not being fit to wear the Confederate uniform.”
“Why didn’t Kimberlee mention that when you asked if anyone had a grudge against Vernon?”
“He never told her. He said he didn’t want to worry her. Who knows, though? Maybe he didn’t want to tell her because he thought she might have something to do with it.”
She looked at him sternly. “I can’t believe you’re suggesting that Kimberlee would fake racist threats against her own husband.”
“I hope not.”
“Come on now, Warren, it’s plain that she adored him. She lights up when she talks about him. How many wives, after almost ten years of marriage, can remember every detail of every date they went on with their husbands?”
“Look, your job is based on trust, mine is based on suspicion. I can’t stop investigating somebody just because they’re nice.”
“Well then you should stop investigating somebody when they are obviously devastated by the death of their spouse,” Lindsay huffed.
Warren shrugged his shoulders, “All I can say is that you’d be surprised what people are capable of when it comes to people they love.”
“I think you would be surprised what people are capable of when it comes to people they love,” Lindsay countered.
“You should consider yourself lucky that you get to see that side of people.”
“I do.” Lindsay frowned and began digging in her purse for her car keys. “Something bothers me about this threatening letter. If the police knew about these threats, why didn’t they protect him at the reenactment?”
“Come on, Lindsay. We couldn’t protect him out there. They hold the battle over a huge piece of land, and some of it is heavily wooded. We don’t have that kind of manpower. We have eleven full-time officers, Mount Moriah has six. Most of them are patrol officers who spend their time handing out speeding tickets and busting kids for drinking Mad Dog down at the quarry. That’s why the two departments are working this murder together now. Between the two forces, we have a total of three officers, myself included, that are experienced with criminal investigations. We’re not the FBI. And we’re definitely not the Secret Service. Besides, most threats like this don’t amount to anything.”
“So you just ignored it?” Lindsay said.
“Of course not. We took it real serious. For a mild-mannered guy like Vernon to get all worked up like that, we thought there might be something in it. We even put in a call to the FBI to see if there was anything cooking up among the white supremacist element around here. The FBI monitors activity among fringe groups, you know. They told us that everything seemed quiet—no reason to think the white robers and skinheads were up to anything out of the ordinary. Even still, we told Vernon not to go to the reenactment, or any other Civil War events for the time being. We told him just to lay low and watch his back until we could look into it some more. That seemed like the easiest row to hoe.
“We also offered to set something up where one of our patrolmen could drive by the house now and again and check things out, make sure he and Kimberlee were all right. He said okay, as long as we could do it without his wife finding out. Our guys circled their house a few times a day and never saw a thing.” He shook his head and let out a long exhalation. “I’d better be on my way. It was real nice to see you, Lindsay. I hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years to run into each other.”
Warren waved out the car window as he drove off down the street. Lindsay looked back at the Youngs’ house, its yellow paint glowing cheerfully under the street lights. The well-tended flower garden and tidy lawn gave off an aura of domestic tranquility. Inside, Lindsay could see Kimberlee moving from room to room, turning off the lights. For a moment, the sidewalk where Lindsay stood was plunged into semi-darkness. Then Lindsay watched as, one by one, Kimberlee turned all the lights back on. This task completed, Kimberlee began again, flicking off the switches as she moved through the rooms. Her movements cast shadows out unto the Young’s front lawn—the crisscrossing forms kaleidoscoped eerily across the darkened grass.
At lunch the next day, Anna, Rob, and Lindsay shared their usual table in the hospital cafeteria. “You missed a great meal at the Mex-itali last night,” Rob said to Lindsay.
“That place is an abomination. Lasagna should not be served with a side of refried beans. It’s wrong on so many levels,” Anna interjected.
“Your problem is that you can’t put aside your preconceived gastronomical notions. Mex-itali is a pan-global fusion restaurant blending Old World and New. How else can you explain the delicate culinary synergy that is the Meatball Marinara Enchilada?” Lindsay asked, her eyes twinkling.
“You’re right. There is no explanation,” Anna replied dryly.
“How did your memorial preparation go?” Rob asked, turning to Lindsay.
“It went…weird. A cop from New Albany, in fact, a guy I know from high school, stopped by and asked Kimberlee a bunch of questions about Vernon. There was something kind of crafty going on. Like he was asking questions, but they weren’t the real questions, if that makes any sense.” She furrowed her brow. “Then Kimberlee force-fed me a plate of fried chicken and pie. I have to go over there again today to finish all the arrangements for the memorial service.”
“Ugh, why are you doing a funeral?” Anna groaned. “Do you not get enough quality Grim Reaper time here? You basically spend eight hours a day talking to sick people or dying people or the families of sick, dying people. It’s very morbid and unhealthy. I don’t think you’re seeing enough action in your romance department. Your priorities are out of whack. I’m a medical doctor, so I know.”
“I agree that ‘none whatsoever’ is probably not enough action. I don’t see my job as morbid, though. I’m basically a traveling companion, making people more comfortable on their journey through life.”
“I could never do the work you do. Lots of days, I see death. But I never have to accept it. You know? I fight against it. The fight is quick and usually I win.” Anna continued to poke at the remains of her salad. “God, I hate talking to the families. At least that’s usually quick, too. ‘I’m very sorry Mrs. Wilson. We did everything we could, blah blah blah.’ Mrs. Wilson cries. I hug her. I nudge her toward the door or call one of you. I could never just sit still and hold hands and accept it all!” She pushed her chair back with a screech and lifted her tray. “Well now I’m cranky. I don’t know why I am friends with you…you…co-pilots on Bereavement Airways. I’m going to find a nice, alive patient who needs their appendix out or a face full of stitches or something.”
Rob and Lindsay watched Anna leave, and turned back to each other, smiling.
Lindsay and Rob’s first encounter had nearly ended in a riot. They met at the small Christian college they both attended as undergraduates. The professor in their Intro to Modern Christianity class prompted the students to discuss the theological underpinnings of the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance opposing women in the ministry. They were divided into two groups: Lindsay spoke for the group in favor of women ministers, Rob spoke for the case against. The two of them sat at the front of the class, while their professor, a mild-mannered Methodist who wore sandals and a ponytail, moderated the debate.
Rob had been raised in Taiwan, by devout evangelical Christian parents. He attended an American missionary school there and aspired to be a missionary himself. Lindsay had grown up with a similarly narrow exposure to religious diversity. In Mount Moriah, religion came in two flavors—black Protestant and white Protestant. She was, however, possessed of a strong anti-authoritarian streak, a trait that often revealed itself in her views on religion.
“In 1 Timothy, Paul wrote, ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent,’” was Rob’s opening salvo. He laid his hands on the table in front of him as if to rest his case.
Lindsay was not cowed by his theatrical display of certainty. “Quoting scripture is just an excuse for not thinking about what you’re saying. According to the Bible, the sun moves around the earth and the ocean is filled with sea monsters.”
“That stuff is in the Old Testament,” Rob replied. “The Old Testament may be more…poetic, but what the Apostle Paul wrote is pretty obviously meant to be literal and to be followed by anyone who calls themselves a Christian.”
“You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to interpret literally and which to interpret metaphorically. Is it a rulebook or a guidebook? And you can’t pretend that all Christians think the same way about this or any other issue.”
“If you don’t think the Bible is true, don’t be a Christian. Go and find a copy of the dictionary. That’s true, right? Worship that.”
The class exploded with a level of pent-up idealism that can only be found in a room full of eighteen-year-olds; they were brimming with poorly-understood ideas and unchecked hormones. The students shouted at the debaters and at one another. Lindsay and Rob shouted louder. The two sides became more and more entrenched, with neither willing to give an inch of ground. Lindsay and Rob could now barely be heard above the din. Their professor stood and walked calmly over to Lindsay and Rob. He laid his hands briefly on the top of their heads. Then he walked up and down the aisles of the classroom, touching each student lightly on the head. It was as if he had discovered an invisible mute button. As he touched the students, their voices were stilled. When the room was finally silent, the professor said quietly, “Well, I think that’s enough for today. Enthusiasm is always welcome in this classroom. And in the future, I know that you will find ways to express your enthusiasm that are respectful of your classmates’ opinions.”
By the end of the semester, Lindsay and Rob had taken their professor’s advice to heart. They still disagreed about almost everything, but they both began to embrace the idea that silence and listening were sometimes a better way to be heard than shouting. Gradually, quietly, they became inseparable friends.
At the end of her shift at the hospital that afternoon, Lindsay sat in the small chaplains’ office, typing her case notes into the hospital’s database. The ancient computer whirred like a spinning top and superheated the air all around it; its calefaction almost cancelled out the frigid air conditioning blasting from the ceiling vent.
Geneva entered the room and walked straight over to the scratched, wooden desk. She planted her small hands down and leaned in toward Lindsay. “Well?” she demanded. “Have you seen him?”
“Ha!” Geneva triumphantly poked the air with her small, bony finger. “Just remember to name your first child Geneva. Genever if it’s a boy.”
“We’ve got a ways to go before we’re thinking about kids’ names.”
“Don’t you worry. He’ll take notice of you. Nice girl like you. Polite. Christian. Nothing wrong with your face. Body neither, ‘cept maybe too skinny.” She leaned further forward and peered more closely at the frizzy curls that escaped Lindsay’s ponytail. “Well, you got something strange going on with your hair, but that’s okay. He’ll see past that and that will prove that he’s a man of integrity.”
There was a knock at the door and Rob poked his head into the office. “Ready to go, Linds? I’ll walk to the parking lot with you.”
“Just one minute.” Lindsay didn’t take her eyes off the computer screen where a series of error messages notified her that the system memory was low. “I swear I’d be better off chiseling my notes into stone tablets. I think it’s running Windows B.C. You’re the boss, Rob, can’t you do something about this? Why doesn’t any of the hospital’s cash flow down here?”
“You know where pastoral services fall in the hospital pecking order—somewhere below landscaping. As long as that computer keeps limping along, they’re not gonna replace it.”
Rob greeted Geneva and perched himself on the corner of Lindsay’s desk, swinging his legs and using his fingers to tap out an irregular beat on the desktop. “Stop fidgeting,” Lindsay said irritably, still not looking at him. Rob instantly ceased all movement but began to hum softly to himself. His humming was dreadfully off-key, though Lindsay knew for a fact that he had near-perfect pitch. “You’re such a child.”
“My, my Reverend Harding. You should really try to hold yourself above such petty name calling,” Rob admonished. He had always taken great joy in exercising his singular ability to needle Lindsay, and now that he was her supervisor, this joy increased ten-fold. Geneva simply rolled her eyes at them. As Lindsay finished the last of her paperwork, Geneva’s pager began to vibrate. She held it up and looked at the code. “ER. Dang. That probably means a dead-on-arrival, talk to the grieving family thing. I was hoping for a nice, quiet shift.”
Rob’s needling, combined with the computer’s inefficiency, had soured Lindsay’s mood. “That’s another thing. Why do we have to use pagers, anyway? In case we get an urgent call from 1987?”
Rob considered a moment. “You know what? I never thought about it. I guess there’d be no sense in calling us on a phone, because the message is always some version of: Get over here now! The only real questions are where to get to and who wants you there.”
“Also, pagers are cheaper than cell phones. Hospital will spend $600 a week on flower arrangements for the lobby, but Heaven Almighty protect ‘em if they spend a dime on us chaplains,” Geneva said, rising from her chair.
Geneva moved toward the door, but Lindsay stopped her. “Hey, Geneva? Before you go, I need to ask your opinion.”
“Girl, you know you don’t need to ask. My opinions will be offered regularly and free of charge.”
“You heard about the shooting last weekend at the reenactment? Vernon Young?”
Geneva nodded gravely. “It’s about the only thing on the news.”
“The main theory the police are working on right now is that one of the good ‘ole boy reenactors didn’t like that Vernon was black.”
“Black man gets shot out in a field, surrounded by a bunch of white folks wearing Confederate uniforms and pointing guns. Don’t need no rocket science degree to come to that conclusion.” Geneva frowned.
“So you’re comfortable with that theory?”
“Comfortable!? I thought this town had started to put all that behind us. Stirring that pot again makes me about as comfortable as a rib-eye steak in a lion cage.”
“I take it you have doubts, Linds?” Rob said.
“I don’t know. It’s mostly that Kimberlee just seems so sure that Vernon got along with his fellow reenactors. And we know some of the guys who were out there. They’re our friends, for heaven’s sake. I’m just having a hard time seeing any of them as secret KKK Grand Wizards. Maybe that kind of thing would have happened thirty or forty years ago, but this town has come a long way.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Geneva said in a tone that didn’t sound at all like agreement.
“I’m with Geneva. The South has come a long way, but it’s still the South,” Rob said. “I still get stares sometimes because I’m Asian.”
“Rob, you’re a tiny Chinese guy who talks with a funny accent and walks your three-legged cat through town on a leash. There are precious few places outside of Northern California where you’re not going to get stares,” Lindsay said.
“You know that the leash is intended to build Beyoncé’s confidence! The vet says it might help with her self-esteem issues!”
“I didn’t mean to make fun of Beyoncé,” Lindsay said.
“Good, because you’re her godmother. She needs to know that you support her therapeutic process.”
Lindsay turned toward Geneva and sighed. “All I’m trying to say is that being black hasn’t stopped your kids from becoming dentists and lawyers and whatever else in this town. I know Mount Moriah isn’t exactly Amsterdam, but it’s more libertarian than reactionary.”
“Linds, you’ve got to remember that you’re white and straight and Christian,” Rob said.
“I did the same diversity training as you two did. Having pale skin doesn’t make me The Man,” Lindsay answered crossly.
Geneva raised her eyebrow. It was an eyebrow raise born of years of being a black woman in the South. It was an eyebrow raise that invoked slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights. Lindsay threw her hands up. “Fine. But just because this isn’t a bastion of diversity doesn’t mean that Mount Moriah is full of neo-Nazis who would kill Vernon in cold blood just because he was black. I just can’t believe that about this town. I’ve known some of these people for my whole life.”
Geneva shook her head. “I don’t like to think that way about people either. But what we like to think and what’s true are sometimes two different things.” Geneva sighed heavily. “Lindsay, girl, I truly hope to Jesus that you are right. I truly do. But I just don’t know.”
After she had finally entered the last of her notes into the computer, Lindsay left the hospital and returned to Kimberlee’s house, intending to work on the memorial arrangements they’d left unfinished on the previous night. She pulled onto the Youngs’ street, and was surprised to find half a dozen cars filling the Youngs’ driveway and spilling out along the road. As she walked toward the house, the low murmur of voices seeped out, even though all of the windows were closed.
Lindsay had to ring the bell three times before a heavy-set man finally answered the door. He wore jeans and a Demon Deacons t-shirt—its scowling, top-hatted cleric logo confronting Lindsay. The man’s thinning grey hair was cropped close to his scalp. A flush of color rose from his thick neck, flooding his cheeks with patches of red. His face was scrunched in concentration, as if he were trying to balance a spoon on the end of his nose.
“Hello. I’m Lindsay Harding. I think we met at the hospital. You’re Keith, right?”
His expression softened with recognition, though a deep wrinkle still creased his brow. “Oh, yeah. Kimberlee said you’re doing the service for Vernon. Come on in. We’re having a family powwow right now. I’m afraid we’ve had another shock. You see, the police came around again…” he trailed off as they stepped inside. “I reckon I’ll let the girls tell you.”
Keith gestured toward the couch, where Kimberlee sat, tear-stained and red-faced. The three Bullard sisters circled tightly around her like covered wagons ready to fend off a gang of marauding bandits. All the sisters were pudgy, most of them were blonde, and all of them seemed to be talking at the same time. Lindsay could only catch snippets of their conversation. “Can they even do that? That sounds made-up to me.” “That Warren Satterwhite is trickier than a magician’s rabbit.” “And meaner than a bag of rattlesnakes.”
Lindsay called a loud greeting over the din. They turned toward her, a hydra-headed mass of freckles and highlights.
“Oh girl!” Kimberlee exclaimed, jumping up from the couch and running to embrace Lindsay. “They think I did it!”
“Did what?” Lindsay said, still not quite following the conversation.
“Killed him! The police think I killed Vernon!” She burst into a fresh torrent of tears and buried her face in her hands. Even during the long hours at Vernon’s bedside, Lindsay had never seen Kimberlee break down so completely. Keith ushered Lindsay and Kimberlee over to the couch, where the sea of sisters parted to make room for them. Before any further explanation was offered, all eyes turned toward the stairs, where the heavy thud of footsteps could be heard.
Versa Bullard, the family matriarch, sailed down the stairs with the iron-clad solidity of a battleship. She wore a sleeveless denim shirt embroidered in a pattern of red and white fireworks and children waving American flags. A pair of fuchsia reading glasses dangled from a beaded chain around her neck. White hair seemed to explode from her head like a sunburst, moving as a unit when she spoke.
She addressed her children: “Well, he’s settled down now. Those tranquilizers did the trick. I swear if we hadn’t gotten those pills down him, we’d have had another death on our hands—either his from a heart attack or that skunk Warren Satterwhite’s from a beating.” With a little shooing motion, Versa directed Keith to vacate the armchair where he was seated. He popped up obediently and stepped aside while she arranged her ample bulk upon the pink leather.
“I guess you’ve heard by now,” Kathilee, the oldest sister, said to Lindsey.
“Actually, I haven’t. What in the world is going on?”
The twins, Kristalene and Kennadine, both began talking at once. During the time she spent with the Bullards at the hospital, Lindsay had never really figured out which twin was which. She now came to realize that it didn’t really matter.
“They came over here this morning with a warrant to search the house. Pulled out everything from all the closets and basically ransacked the place,” one twin said.
“Who came?” Lindsay asked.
“Warren Satterwhite and a bunch of police, and then some other guy I think was from the FBI or something. They brought him in special to work on Vernon’s case,” the other twin answered.
The first twin continued, “Then they came back a few hours later and said they just wanted Kimmie to come over to the police station and answer a few more questions. She knew something funny was going on ‘cause they were acting all shifty.”
The other twin elaborated, “And when they got her to the police station, that scary, serious-looking detective or agent or whatever he was pulled out this piece of paper with all these horrible things written on it and asked her if she’s seen it before…”
Twin #1 lamented, “Terrible things! Like about Vernon being black, only they didn’t say black, they called him a such and suching you-know-what…”
Twin #2 concurred, “And it said how he shouldn’t be married to a white woman and how he shouldn’t do his Confederate army man thing…”
Twin #1 explained, “And the detective was asking Kimmie if she saw this paper before…”
Twin #2 clarified, “Which, of course, she never had…”
Twin #1: “And then they said that they’d run some kind of test…
Twin #2: “Which I don’t even think they can do, anyway. It just sounds made-up…”
Twin #1: “No, it’s not made up. They can do that. I told you I saw that on CSI. Regular CSI, not Miami, which I don’t even watch anymore because I don’t like that one fellow who they have on there now.”
Twin #2: “But anyway, they said they ran this test on some piece of paper that Warren Satterwhite took from here last night that had a poem or something on it, and they said it was printed on the exact same printer that the horrible letter about Vernon was printed on! And that that was Kimmie and Vernon’s printer!”
“That slimeball!” both twins said simultaneously.
Kathilee, the non-twin sister, interjected with a brief aside. “We never liked the Satterwhites, you know. Warren’s cousin Jake used to throw sticks at our dog when he walked past our house on his way to Little League practice. And Gremlin was a sweet old thing and hardly ever bit anyone.”
The twins nodded in agreement. “Satterwhites are just like that. Do you remember old Zeb Satterwhite?” The twin who was speaking paused for effect. “He was a ped-o-phile.”
“Well, maybe not a pedophile, exactly, but he was near on fifty and married a girl of about eighteen,” the other twin explained.
“And that fancy, serious-looking detective—he didn’t even have the good manners to introduce himself—was acting all high and mighty. Said he used to work in Los Angeles.”
The other twin said gravely to Lindsay, “L.A.” She spoke the letters as if they summed up the man’s character.
“Anyway, the police were being real mean to Kimmie and saying ‘Why did you do it?’ and ‘Why weren’t you at the reenactment?’ and saying they were going to bring Momma in for questioning! Something about establishing her alibi or something.”
Lindsay looked helplessly around the room. “I’m not sure I understand what is going on.”
Kathilee stepped in to explain. She seemed to be the family spokesperson, serving as a sort of translator who interpreted the Bullards’ familial ciphers for the outside world. “You see, the police think that our Kimmie had something to do with Vernon’s death. I guess they don’t have enough evidence to arrest her, so they were trying to get her to confess. She told them she didn’t do anything wrong and had nothing to do with it. Kennadine’s husband, Marshall Pickett, is a lawyer. You might know him? He has those commercials on cable where he dresses up like a cowboy and chases after the Malpractice Kid? Anyway, Kimmie told them she was going to call him to come over and wouldn’t say anything else without him there. When Marshall showed up, he asked them was she under arrest. They said no and they had to let her go.”
“We all came running over when we heard,” one of the twins said.
Versa smiled at her children. “Daddy about broke a land speed record getting over here. He was so riled up we had to give him something to calm him down. I crushed up a couple of them pills that the doctor gave him and put it in his sweet tea. He’s upstairs now resting.” She crossed her arms with a self-satisfied expression. The compression over her chest somehow, improbably, meant that the line of her cleavage shot out of her shirt like the mercury in a thermometer, reaching up to the base of her throat.
“Daddy’s too pigheaded to take his medicine when he needs it,” Kathilee said. “His heart ain’t as strong as it once was, and he can’t take all this stress with Vernon and whatnot.”
At the mention of Vernon’s name, Kimberlee sprang back to life. She grabbed Lindsay’s hand as if she were holding on to the edge of a cliff. “When Vernon died, I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. This, though…I just can’t see a way through this. I have never been so scared in my whole life. The police took all the stuff I’d printed out for the memorial service for ‘evidence’.” She paused. “I wish Vernon was here. I know that doesn’t make sense, because if he was here, none of this would be happening in the first place. But I can’t help but feel that if Vernon was here, he would know exactly what to do.”
Kimberlee’s words shot through Lindsay’s brain like a jolt of electricity. Kimberlee might be more right than she realized. Vernon Young would know what to do—and maybe he had already done it. It was only a hunch, but it was a hunch that Lindsay intended to follow up at the earliest opportunity.