Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridgeby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
CHAPTER 19: Christmas Eve
Arthur flung himself to the other side of the car, away from the pale blue eyes. The window on the passenger side of the car was broken out too, and the snow was collecting in little drifts on the upturned roof. Jagged branches of bare underbrush jutted through the empty window. He grasped the broken branches with both hands and hauled himself over the door frame, and out into the frozen night.
CHAPTER 20: The Anointing
Marc's eyes were round as saucers. "Your own mother said that to you?"
Arthur nodded, and Marc flopped back on the futon so hard the wooden slats groaned. "OK then, you win. Your family is definitely more fucked up than mine."
Arthur smiled without humor. "I've known that for years."
"You're sure your mom wasn't just joking around with you or something?"
"That's not really her kind of humor."
"She really thinks it's your family duty to get married and make little baby Arthurs? And she doesn't mind the idea of me as a permanent house guest? That's unreal. She can't have been serious." Marc smiled a little. "It's a pretty kinky idea, though. I could climb up a ladder to your bedroom window every night, just like the stable boy in Maurice."
Arthur looked appalled.
"Well, I guess that might start to get old after a few nights," Marc admitted. "Especially the first time it rained or something. You know what I think? I think your mom didn't want to talk about Clara Kimble anymore, so she just blurted out the most outrageous thing she could think of, hoping that would shut you up."
"I know." Arthur looked away. "That's what scares me."
Marc grabbed Arthur's chin and pulled his head back to face him. "What are you saying here? You really think your mother was lying about Clara Kimble?"
"Why would she do that?"
"She told me why. Because if the truth comes out now, she's afraid she'll end up in court facing thirty-year-old murder charges."
Arthur was back in town Monday morning in time for Ida Burch's funeral service, though he almost missed the church entirely, since he was looking for stained glass windows and a steeple. When the road he was following began to twist and wind down through the woods, he turned his car around in the driveway of a trailer park and drove back through the decaying suburb. He found the church at last in a red brick shopping center that he hadn't noticed his first time past. The Winn-Dixie had long since closed down, but the little storefront beside it that might once have been a dress shop had an electric sign board out front that read,
Name of Jesus Holiness Church
With Signs Following After.
A dozen cars and trucks were scattered across the lot, mostly ten-year-old Fords and Chevys. A shiny black hearse with cream colored silk curtains was parked discreetly to one side.
Arthur pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine, waiting for the commotion at the front of the church to subside. An ancient white station wagon was parked at the entrance, and a woman with a tremendous weight of iron gray hair piled on top of her head was struggling with the back door of the car. When it finally swung open, the weight of it nearly knocked her off her feet. Only then did her husband set the parking brake and get out of the car to help her. Together they maneuvered something large and awkward to the back of the wagon, then lifted it out.
Arthur could see a wooden box with handles and a hinged lid. Black crosses were painted on the sides. Someone inside the church threw open the doors for the elderly couple, and they lugged the box in together. Arthur got out of his car and followed them.
Folding chairs were set up in rows facing a gun metal gray lectern. The walls were decorated with swags of Christmas tree lights and Bible verses painted in six-inch high black letters. Across the front wall was written, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned." A second verse beneath it read, "And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness."
The casket lay on stainless steel trestles before the lectern, with the upper half of the lid thrown back. The gleaming rosewood looked oddly out of place in the makeshift surroundings. Arthur could not see the body that lay within. Dozens of carnations were heaped across the lower half of the casket, so many that the air in the storefront sanctuary was thick and sweet. The arrangement of calla lilies Arthur had sent stood at the base, partially camouflaging the trestles. The only other arrangements were two or three floral tributes, the flowers dwarfed by inexpensive velvet ribbon wound around styrofoam wreathes.
Arthur slipped into an empty seat at the back of the sanctuary, but heads had turned at his entrance, and Billy Burch got up from a chair in the front row and came up the aisle. Arthur noticed that the couple with the painted box had placed it beside the pulpit before taking their own seats.
"Arthur, my boy," Billy said. His washed-out blue eyes were clear and shining. "Praise Jesus."
A hand fell on Arthur's shoulder from behind. A wiry, ancient man with three-day-old whiskers bristling on his cheeks stood there, his face alight with joy. "You don't remember me, do you?" he demanded in a loud, cheerful voice.
"Reverend Humphrey," Arthur said cautiously. "It's been years."
He laughed. "No, no. Call me Brother Mike, not Reverend. I may have a gift for prophecy, but that don't mean the Lord intended me to stand before my brethren in Christ."
"Mr. Burch," Arthur continued, turning back to Billy, "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Don't mourn for me, or for Ida neither," Billy corrected him. "Only a proud and unrepentent heart would question the Lord's will in this."
"We prayed over Sister Ida for twelve hours," Brother Mike told Arthur. "Asking Jesus to return her to us. But it was time for her to be with her Savior in heaven."
Arthur hoped he had misunderstood. Surely the pastor didn't mean they had been praying for twelve hours for life to return to the body of Billy's dead wife.
"Perhaps it's time to get started," Brother Mike said. He shook Arthur's hand vigorously, then stumped back up the aisle to the front of the sanctuary.
Before he returned to his seat, Billy said loudly to Arthur, "We'll be having a little supper back at the house later on. We'll be looking for you. You know the way. And don't you worry about bringing nothing. I know you ain't got a woman to do for you."
Standing at the front of the sanctuary, Mike Humphrey opened up the Bible that lay on the lectern and began to read.
"And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou has done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat."
Sunday afternoon, while he was still in Atlanta, Arthur had finally telephoned Leanne Kimble and told her he had decided he could not allow her back on the estate.
"I don't understand," she said. "I thought we had agreed I would come back to look for Mother's things after you talked to your tenants."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible. A problem has come up."
She laughed outright. "You've been talking to your family, haven't you? I'd give my eye teeth to know what they said to you. Did they tell how they did it? Or where her bones are buried?"
"Actually, I was told that your mother ran away with a man from the Southern Railroad," Arthur said in a flat, level voice.
"My god," Leanne said, after a moment of shocked silence. "How do you sleep at night?"
Not very well, Arthur thought. "Why didn't you tell me you'd already been on the property?"
"I don't know what you--oh. This summer, you mean?"
"Apparently you told Dennis that you'd been sent by the realtor."
"It was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment," Leanne said, sounding unrepentent.
"I don't feel that I can ask Dennis and Gavin to allow you back on the property when you've already been here once under false pretenses. I'll search the basement and the attic of the main house myself. I'll let you know if I find anything."
"Wait a minute. What's to keep you from destroying anything you find of Mother's? How can I possibly trust you?"
"I don't know," Arthur said. "I'm sorry."
Brother Mike's sermon was an apocalyptic vision woven from the most bitter Old Testament denunciations and Jesus' and St. John's direst predictions of the End Times. Arthur looked wonderingly around at the other mourners. No one else seemed to find it odd that Brother Mike described Ida's death as a mercy, delivering her from the imminent tribulations of the final days.
"Their torment will be as the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man," Brother Mike warned them. "And in those days men shall seek death, and shall not find it, and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them."
Arthur was beginning to feel as though he were intruding on something intensely private. The congregation was groaning and rocking in their chairs. A young woman sitting a few rows in front of Arthur raised both her hands towards the ceiling and began chanting "Ay-ay-ay-ay" so mechanically and tirelessly that it became a kind of steady, endless backbeat to the sermon. The smell of carnations was overpowering.
And then Billy Burch suddenly jumped to his feet. He turned around, stared straight at Arthur, and shouted, "Rejoice with me, for the lost sheep has now been found!"
Arthur's face prickled with heat as silence spread over the congregation. Brother Mike said nothing, and even the woman chanting in front trailed off. All eyes turned to Arthur, who stared straight ahead, his entire field of vision filled with Ida Burch's casket, holding a corpse these people had tried for twelve hours to return to life. They were awaiting something equally miraculous from him now. He finally braved a look at Brother Mike's congregation, and saw the hope shining on all their faces.
And then Brother Mike said in a voice that was calm and slow, utterly unlike the wild voice he used for preaching, "Lord Jesus, I thank you for the anointing of your Holy Spirit."
He bent down and opened the lid of the white box with the painted black crosses. Arthur saw for the first time that the lid was vented with rusted iron mesh. Brother Mike said, "Thank you, Jesus," again, and lifted out a three-foot long copperhead.
The congregation began to moan.
The blunt, scaly head rose until it was nose to nose with Brother Mike. Arthur sat frozen with shock, certain that he was watching an act of suicide.
The elderly woman who had brought in the box came forward and lifted a second snake out. Billy Burch stretched out his hands, and she gave it to him. He turned around, the snake coiling slowly around his wrists, and looked at Arthur. His face shone with tears of joy.
CHAPTER 21: Professional Standards
Arthur went to see his family lawyer instead of attending Ida's graveside service.
Daugherty & Daugherty still had their offices above Folkson's Hardware, the name of the firm painted in black gothic script on the bay window overlooking the town square. Hank's Diner was busy with the lunch hour crowd, but the rest of downtown Riverbend seemed deserted. Arthur walked through autumn leaves lying thick and undisturbed on the sidewalk. An oak staircase defaced with rubber safety steps led up to the office on the second story. The original firm name was etched in the frosted glass on the door, but a little brass sign hanging beside it advised that the firm was now Daugherty, Daugherty & Daugherty. It made Arthur a little sad to realize that Paul Daugherty must have gone into law after all.
The receptionist looked up when Arthur opened the door to the waiting room. Her blue eyes were so pale they looked almost colorless, and they were set just a little too close together. Her dishwater blonde hair was tied at the back of her neck with a frayed black velvet ribbon. "Hi," she said. "Can I help you?"
"I don't have an appointment. But I was wondering if there were any way I could see Mr. Daugherty today."
The receptionist grinned. Her teeth were crooked and dark with rot. "First, second or third?"
Arthur shrugged and smiled back. "I'd be glad to see anyone who's available."
His willingness to talk to any of the three evidently aroused her suspicions. Her smile became close-lipped and guarded, hiding the bad teeth. "Well, I don't know if you can talk to a lawyer right now. But I'd be glad to make an appointment for you if you want to come back another time. How would tomorrow be, or maybe later this week?"
One of the oak-paneled doors behind the receptionist's desk opened to reveal a man wearing tailored slacks, suspenders and an imperfectly ironed white shirt. A volume of the Georgia Statutes was open in his hands, and he looked to Arthur as though he were anticipating a casting call for Inherit The Wind. He glanced blankly through his wire-rimmed glasses. Then a grin spread across his face. "Why, Joy," he said to the receptionist, "Do you have any idea who you're giving such a hard time to here?"
She smiled apologetically back at Arthur. "I guess I haven't gotten your name yet."
"Arthur Drake," he told her. "I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself when I came in."
"Oh my goodness," she said faintly. Her pale eyes looked bruised and afraid. "I didn't know."
"Is there any reason you should have?" Arthur asked.
"Well, your family has been known to throw a little work our way every once in a while." Paul Daugherty slammed shut his volume of statutes and leaned over Joy's desk to shake Arthur's hand. "You old son of a gun. I heard you were back in town. I'd been wondering if you were going to stop by and say hello."
"Hello Paul," Arthur said. "How have you been?"
"Oh I'm fine, I'm fine. We're all fine here. But this isn't a social call, is it? I know they're laying that poor Burch woman in the ground today. Come on around, and I'll have Joy pull the file for you."
He led the way back to the office with the bay window. The autumn sun threw long shadows past the black painted letters of the firm name. "If you've got time, you'll have to say hello to Dad and Grandfather," Paul was saying. "They're both excited as kids over a Drake being back in town, they really are. Here, have a seat. I know what you're thinking, and it's not just the extra business, either. How long has it been since your folks moved away, Arthur? Two years? Three? It's like some of the life went out of the whole town with renters in Drake House."
"So you decided on law school after all," Arthur said. "And all these years I've been looking for your name on the pro circuit."
Paul shook his head. "I played my first year of college, but you know Dad was right all along. Golf is no way for a grown man to make a living. Besides," he went on wryly. "I may not be the greatest attorney in the world, but I'll tell you this, I'm a hell of a better lawyer than I ever was a golfer. How about you Arthur?"
"I'm not much of a golfer either."
Paul laughed too loudly. "You got home just in time. Did you realize our twenty-five year reunion is coming up this spring? It'll be the first one you've been in town for, won't it?"
"That's true, I guess."
"Don't look so worried. I'm not about to hit you up for the alumni fund. That's Dad's job."
"Excuse me," Joy stood in the doorway. "I pulled the Burch file for you."
"That'll be all. Thank you, honey," Paul said.
She smiled nervously at Arthur, and shut the door on her way out of the office.
Paul opened the manila file folder and pushed it across the table to Arthur. "Stellar Brothers is a good place, as far as I know, but you can't be too careful. I've never heard of an undertaker yet who wouldn't be glad to take the food out of mouth and then turn around and take the clothes off your back as well."
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, then looked down at the open file.
Paul had given him an invoice for Ida Burch's funeral. The itemization of expenses and services went on for pages. Arthur read through them with a sense of numbed amazement. Ida's rosewood casket had cost more than twenty thousand dollars, and two thousand dollars worth of carnations covered it. No wonder the air in the storefront sanctuary had been thick with the smell of them. He was afraid Paul would see his hand trembling as he reached out to turn the next page. The charges went on and on, each more extravagant than the last, climaxing with the six foot tall angel of Italian marble that had been commissioned for the grave site.
And on the final page, Arthur found his father's signature, authorizing the expenditure.
He shut the folder and sat back.
"Does everything look in order?" Paul asked. "I can't imagine a place like Stellar Brothers would do something as cheap as trying to stiff you on the flowers, but if you want, I'll be glad to check for you. Joy can run over on her lunch hour."
"No. That's all right. I saw the flowers myself."
"You went to the service? " Paul shook his head. "I've gotta know. Did they bring out the snakes for the funeral?"
Arthur looked up sharply, and the smile disappeared from Paul's face.
"Oh my Lord. You mean they did? No wonder you're so shook. Are you all right? "
"You don't look it. Here, this'll buck you up." Paul opened his desk drawer and pulled out a flask.
"No, thank you."
"You certain?" Paul put the bottle away and sat back, shaking his head. "I'm a little surprised they would bring out the snakes with you there. That crazy pastor of theirs spent six months in prison after Justus Clowry dropped dead in the middle of a service a few years back. A rattler got him half a dozen times right on the face and neck. They say he was probably dead of shock before he even hit the floor."
Arthur remembered the copperhead writhing in Billy Burch's hands. "How did Reverend Humphrey ever get involved in a group like this?" he asked. "When we were kids he was the pastor down at First Baptist."
"I know. I've heard that First Baptist just about split down the middle when Humphrey left. But the snake handling must have come later. I can't believe there was much speaking in tongues or taking up serpents while Humphrey was still downtown. Is everything all right?" Paul suddenly asked. "Besides the snakes, I mean."
Arthur nodded slightly, and Paul continued, "Because if you're going to be taking care of the Burch file, there are some expenses we've paid out of the trust fund over the past six months that I haven't had a chance to discuss with your father yet. If you've got the time, I could show them to you right now."
My god, Arthur thought. A trust fund, too?
"Yes," he told Paul. "I've got time."
"Thanks, Arthur. It'll be a relief to get this off my desk." He picked up the phone on his desk and said, "Joy, can you come in here for a moment? Joy?" He put the phone down. "She must be away from her desk. Just a moment. I'll go track her down."
Paul pulled the door shut on his way out of the office. Arthur got up and walked to the window, feeling a little light-headed. The sky was the clear, intense blue of late autumn. In the distance, the slopes of Sickle Ridge seemed to shimmer with the red of the maple trees and yellow of the hickories. Arthur looked down at the square. There were half a dozen white government pickup trucks parked in front of the diner. Charlie's was probably among them.
Then from somewhere within the office, Arthur heard the sharp sound of a voice raised in anger. Footsteps came pounding down the hallway. The office door was flung open wide.
There had been no golf, nor any other sport, evidently, to help Paul Daugherty II keep his waistline. His blue suit was tailored to cover a vast, soft bulk that spread around his middle. His face was triple-chinned and splotched with broken blood vessels. Paul hovered anxiously in his wake, his white shirt and suspenders now making him look like a school boy as he smiled miserably over his father's shoulder. With an effort, Mr. Daugherty plastered an unconvincing smile on his florid face. "Welcome back to Riverbend," he said, reaching out to shake Arthur's hand. His hot, sweaty palm enveloped Arthur's. He clamped his other hand on Arthur's shoulder, where it rested like a slab of meat. "But gracious, you boys have put me in an awkward spot here."
"Hello, Mr. Daugherty," Arthur said.
"Now I don't blame you for one minute," he insisted, although he kept his grip on Arthur's shoulder, "but Paul sure should have known better. What were all those years of law school I paid for anyway? Ha ha."
Arthur pulled himself free of Mr. Daugherty's hand. "Is there a problem?"
"The problem is, Paul had no business talking to you about your parents' financial affairs. Come on now, Arthur," he went on, with painfully false avuncularity, "You wouldn't walk into one of your big L.A. firms and expect to look at another client's files. You probably think of us as small town hicks here, but we do have some notion of professional standards. Now, I hope to have you and your family as clients for a long time to come, so I know you won't take this the wrong way. But if you want to look at your parents' files, you need to have your daddy give me a phone call, and then I'll be just as happy as I can be to help you out. But in the meantime, I would take it as a personal favor if you would just forget about anything you may have seen because of my boy's carelessness."
Mr. Daugherty slammed shut the file on his son's desk and tucked it under his arm. "Now then. That's enough about business. Arthur, I wonder if Paul's said anything to you about Brighton's building fund campaign."
By the time Arthur escaped to the safety of the street he was calmer, and even rather pleased at the success of his amateur detective work. He had gone to the firm with nothing more than a faint suspicion that the flowers he had seen cascading over Ida Burch's coffin had been too extravagant an expression of grief. And Paul Daugherty had cheerfully spread before him evidence that Arthur's parents could no longer lie about, dismiss or ignore. Now they would have to answer his questions about the Burches and Clara Kimble.
"Hey Arthur." came a voice from behind him. "Wait up."
And despite everything that had passed between them, just for a moment, Arthur felt the flickering of a very old fire.
Charlie was just coming out of the diner with half a dozen other men, all in the same white shirts, pockets bulging with pens, conservative ties knotted with care. "You got a minute?" he called across the square to Arthur.
Arthur nodded mutely.
Charlie said goodbye to his fellow TVA engineers, slapping one man on the back and laughing loudly at a joke that Arthur could not quite hear. Then he sauntered over, tearing open a little cellophane wrapper and taking out a toothpick on his way. "Haven't seen much of you around lately, neighbor," he said when he got close enough to converse without shouting. His steel-toed safety shoes rang on the pavement.
"No, I suppose not," Arthur agreed.
"Well, Robin would love for you to come to dinner one night," Charlie said. "What's your schedule like? Could you make it some time next week?"
Arthur stared at him. "No," he said at last. "I don't think so."
"Oh come on. Robin's got this idea in her head that I called you a faggot or some damn thing. Come have dinner with us so she'll leave me alone about it."
"I don't think that would be such a good idea."
"Why the hell not? Afraid I won't be able to keep my hands off you?" Charlie laughed. "Well, don't worry. I think I can control myself."
"God damn you, Charlie. Why didn't you ever tell me you were married?"
Charlie didn't blink. "Why didn't you?"
The potluck dinner at Billy Burch's had begun to break up by seven, and although some of Billy's friends settled down in the living room and den as though intending to stay there the rest of the evening, Arthur paid his final condolences and drove home in the twilight. The few bites of macaroni casserole and congealed salad he'd eaten for politeness' sake rested uneasily in his stomach.
He saw no lights on at the main house when he got to the estate. Dennis and Gavin must be in Atlanta tonight.
He pulled around to the carriage house, guided by the light of a single antique gas lamp set in the fork of the driveway. As he did every time he got home after dark, Arthur remembered that he really intended to call a contractor and have security lights installed back here.
The sky was glowing midnight blue beyond the treetops. Arthur parked the car and got out. Something else seemed to be glimmering in the woods. He followed the path around and realized a light was on in the cabin. He stopped dead for a moment, watching. A figure passed before his living room window and stopped, looking out at the dark lawn and the shadow of the woods pressing close on all sides.
Arthur took a deep breath and crossed the front walk to the porch. The moon had not yet risen, so he doubted he could be seen by the figure who stood framed in the window.
He knocked on the front door of his own home and waited to be let in. The man turned his head and moved away from the window. Arthur could hear floorboards creaking as he walked across the living room.
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Dad," Arthur said.
The door was flung open, and Frank Drake regarded his son with his usual mixture of affection and exasperation.
"For heaven's sake, Arthur, if I'd known you were going to cause this much trouble by coming home, I would have told you to just stay in L.A."
CHAPTER 24: Christmas Eve
The underbrush was thick, the dead branches brittle and treacherous with thorns. Arthur grasped desperately at the knotty stems, dragging himself deeper into the thicket. The ground under his belly was covered with fallen leaves, gilded with ice from the storm. The pain in his left knee had become a warm, sick fire.
The thing he had seen on the road was behind him. The thicket didn't slow it down, nor the cold nor the ice, and certainly not the long dead thorns on last year's twining brambles. A fragment of the apocalyptic sermon Brother Mike had preached at Ida's funeral kept recurring to Arthur. And pray that your flight be not in winter.
Shit out of luck there, Arthur thought, almost laughing, and then wondered if he had spoken out loud. His arms were trembling so violently that the next time he tried to pull himself forward, he collapsed facedown in the snow. Ice crystals burned like needles in his cheek. He curled one hand around the stem of a blackberry bush, but no matter how desperately he willed himself to keep going, nothing happened. His fingers twitched and fell away.
His pursuer was very close now.
Arthur turned his head and saw the brambles sway and part. Footsteps crunched in the snow. An unearthly radiance still glimmered in the woods, and Arthur should have been able to see what was behind him. But he was hurt and delirious with the cold, and he couldn't force his mind to interpret what his eyes were showing him. Instead he imagined he saw Billy Burch walking up behind him with a water moccasin in each hand. The sluggish snakes writhed, so heavy that Billy could hardly support their weight. He extended them to Arthur, and even though he knew they weren't real, he could hear the dry, husking rustle of one snake's half-shed skin as it twisted in Billy's hands.
Arthur turned his face away. He drew his knees up under himself and lurched to his feet. The rush of adrenaline held him upright for an instant, but then his knee buckled, and he fell headlong. The ground dropped away, and he rolled and fell down a steep ravine. Every branch he clutched at broke in his hands. The jolt when he reached the bottom knocked the breath out of him. The pain in his knee was making red and black phantoms race across his field of vision.
Then he heard a crash from somewhere above him. Winter-dry underbrush snapped and broke as something monstrous came thundering down the hill.
Arthur scrambled desperately for a place to hide, but he seemed to have landed on an outcropping of rock, for the surface under his hands was smooth and unyielding. He dragged himself forward on his elbows, while the forest above his head roared with the immanence of the beast.
Then his elbow broke through the surface on which he lay. Numbed with the cold as he was, he still felt the shards scraping along his arm as high as his shoulder, and underneath the surface of the ice, the rushing of unseen black waters.
CHAPTER 23: Linen
"You should have let me know you were flying into town, Dad. I would have been glad to meet you at the airport."
Arthur's father scowled. "I've been trying to call you since Saturday."
"I was in Atlanta this weekend. Why didn't you leave a message on my answering machine?"
"I wanted to talk to you, not your machine." Frank sat down heavily on the sofa. A glass of wine stood on the pine coffee table. The bottle beside it was dark with a layer of dust, and matted with cobwebs like a prop from a horror movie. "Have a taste of the '74 Ampeau. It hasn't quite turned to vinegar yet."
Arthur went to the kitchen and got himself a glass. The remains of his father's dinner were spread across the kitchen counter. Half a roast chicken picked clean to the bone, a jar of brown mustard and an empty box of soda crackers.
"Did you go to the funeral?" Frank asked when Arthur returned.
"How's Billy holding up?"
"I'm not really sure."
"What do you mean by that?" Frank asked irritably.
"Billy and half the congregation were passing copperheads hand to hand during the service."
Frank grunted and shook his head. "What can you do for people like that?"
"I don't know. What are you doing for them?"
Frank glanced up. "I talked to Paul Daugherty after you paid your little visit there this afternoon. I know what you're up to, Arthur, and I've got to tell you, I'm not very happy about having to come home and straighten out the mess my own son seems bent on making out of family affairs."
"I didn't set out to cause trouble," Arthur said. "I just want to know what happened to Clara Kimble."
Frank looked at him steadily. "Now how in the hell would you expect me or your mother to know a thing in the world about a little colored girl who worked here for a few months thirty years ago?"
Arthur put down his wine glass. In spite of his father's assurance, the burgundy tasted sour. "You talk about her that way, but here you are on the first plane home, just because I called Mom and asked her a couple of questions."
"Don't try to play games with me. You're not nearly as clever as you think you are."
"No, I'm not. I should have known a long time ago about the money you've been giving to the Burches all these years." He smiled grimly. "Now I understand why Billy and Ida were so happy when they found out I was moving back to the ridge. And you should have seen how surprised Billy was when I refused to buy one of those wooden tables of his. Was that the first time a member of this family has ever turned him down when he asked for money?"
"I don't believe I've ever seen this side of you before," Frank said. "The poor woman's dead. Do you really begrudge her a few flowers on her casket?"
"But you bought a thirty thousand dollar statue to stand on her grave. That doesn't seem to be in quite the same class, does it?"
"What difference does it make to you? Your income is protected. No one can touch your grandmother's trust fund. Or are you starting to worry that it won't be enough to maintain the house? If you're concerned that your mother and I are going through the estate too quickly, then I guess it's time we sat down together and explained exactly how much we expect to be able to leave to you."
"Dad, you and Mom can leave everything to the Flat Earth Society for all I care. That's not the point."
"Then I don't understand why you're prying into matters that are none of your concern."
"Maybe it's none of my business if you've been paying Billy for his silence for thirty years. But Leanne Kimble lost her mother here on the grounds of Drake House, and one way or another, I'm going to find out what happened. So if you came home to try and keep me quiet too, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you've wasted your time."
"Calm down, Arthur. You're not impressing anybody. The only reason I came home was to try and stop you from making an even bigger idiot of yourself than you already have. Here. I've got something to show you."
Frank got up and went to the bedroom, returning with a shirt box that he laid on the table before Arthur. Printed on the lid was the logo of a department store that had gone out of business decades ago.
"What is this? Where did it come from?"
"It's been in a safety deposit box. With all your snooping around, I'm surprised you didn't know about it."
Arthur tried in vain to read the expression on his father's face. Then he eased the lid off the shirt box, and folded back a layer of gray, brittle tissue paper. A thin cotton garment was neatly folded within. He picked it up. There was a faint musty smell, and the fabric was gritty with a layer of dust that had settled into the weave of the cloth. He felt square edges, and unfolded the garment carefully. It was a sleeveless shift, with a single faded ribbon at the neck, and it had been wrapped around thick postcard with a picture of the ocean and the printed message, "Greetings from Miami Beach." Tucked next to the postcard was a black and white photograph with a wide, white border and crinkled edges. A baby lay on a checkered blanket, smiling toothlessly at the photographer.
"It's a picture of Leanne," Arthur said softly. "These are her mother's things."
"Clara left this behind, and her husband never claimed it," Frank said. "But turn the picture over."
There was handwriting on the back of the photograph, script that had turned brown with age.
Robert Augustus Kimble
February 8, 1962
Six months old today
"I don't understand," Arthur said. "Who is this?"
"It's Clara's son."
"Are you sure? Leanne never mentioned a brother."
"Now, I have no way of knowing how many babies Clara may have brought into the world after she left our employ, but while she was working at Drake House, she had only one child, and you're looking at his picture right now."
"I don't believe you," Arthur said flatly.
"Be sensible, Arthur. What would I have to gain by lying to you? Don't you think I know how easily you could check up on me?"
"Then there must be some mistake. I'm sure Leanne can explain everything." Arthur got his address book out of a drawer in the side table and found the folded sheet of note paper Leanne had given him with her phone number on it. Frank didn't say anything as he dialed.
After two rings, Arthur heard the phone company's three-tone error message, and a recorded voice apologizing that the phone number he had reached had been disconnected, or was no longer in service. He hung up the phone and tried again. He called the operator, and then dialed Robin and Charlie's number.
"Arthur!" Robin said happily when she recognized his voice. "What a wonderful surprise. Charlie told me he saw you in town today. What's up? Have you finally given in to our relentless pestering and decided to come to dinner?"
"Robin, I need to know if you've seen Leanne recently."
"Leanne?" she said, puzzled. "Not since Friday, when you came to the studio. Why? Has something happened?"
"Do you know how I can get in touch with her? The number she gave me has been disconnected."
"That's odd. Well, there's a little information card that the campus sends to me. I'll see if I can find it."
She was back a moment later. "Hey Arthur. Are you still there? I found the card, but I'm sorry, it's all smeared like it got left out in the rain. I can't read her phone number or anything."
"Is there an address?"
"There is one, but I can't read it. I'm sorry. If it's important, I could call the school for you in the morning. Otherwise, I'm sure I'll see her next Friday when she comes up for studio. I'll tell her that you're trying to get in touch with her."
"Thank you, Robin. I appreciate it."
Arthur put the phone down and looked at his father. "Well," Frank said, "I guess it's better that you learn your lesson now."
"What lesson is that?" he asked numbly.
"You were very sheltered, living in Los Angeles for so long. Nobody out there knew who the Drakes of Riverbend were, or would have cared even if they knew. But you're home now, and like it or not, that makes you a magnet for every con artist and basket case in North Georgia who thinks she has a sob story to skim a little off the top of the family fortune."
Arthur didn't say anything, and after a moment Frank went on, "I'm just relieved that I got to you before you became any more entangled with this Leanne woman."
Arthur took a swallow of the sour wine. "Don't you think I ought to know what really happened to Clara?"
What makes you so certain that something happened?"
"For one thing, you've kept her night gown in a safe deposit box for thirty years."
Frank smiled ruefully. "This is really all your mother's fault. She was afraid it would tarnish your memories of your grandmother if you knew. But you're not a child anymore, and we could have avoided this whole mess if your mother had just told you everything when you called Saturday. I know we haven't always been as open as we could have been. Should have been, maybe. But frankly, Arthur, you never made it easy for us, did you? You came home to visit once in fifteen years. The first interest you've ever shown in your family history, you're practically accusing your mother of lynching the maid. For heaven's sake, how would you expect us to react?"
Frank paused, and after a moment, Arthur realized he was waiting for his apology. He swallowed and managed to say, "I know, Dad."
Frank patted his knee. "That's what I told April. That if you and me could just sit down face to face, I was sure you would understand. Whatever your grandmother did, Arthur, she did for you. You were always the apple of her eye. And she was afraid that everything she wanted to give you was about to be swept away. They were rioting up in Chattanooga, Bull Connor was making a goddamn fool of himself over in Birmingham, and then when Kennedy sent Federal troops down to Ole Miss, Mother thought it was Reconstruction all over again. And truth to tell, so did April and I."
Arthur's knuckles had turned white on the arm of the sofa. He forced himself to relax, and he hoped he was smiling when he told Frank, "Grandmother was born about fifty years too late to remember Reconstruction, wasn't she?"
His smile must have been successful, because Frank laughed back. "What's the matter with you? Didn't you ever see Gone With the Wind?" His expression became serious. "The point is, when trouble finally came to Riverbend, everyone overreacted. White folks and black folks too."
"Trouble," Arthur echoed. "Mom told me that Clara's husband was trying to start a local chapter of the NAACP. Is that what caused the overreaction?"
"Say what you like, but Riverbend never had a race problem until then. Your grandmother was just trying to calm things down before Riverbend turned into another Montgomery."
"Dad, what happened?" Arthur asked quietly.
"All Mother did was ask Billy if he would round up some of the boys and have a word with Clara one Friday night after she left work. Just to let her husband know that we didn't appreciate him trying to stir up trouble. That's all there was to it."
"Were they wearing white sheets when they had this conversation with Clara?"
Frank didn't blink. "Billy was in the Klan. But it didn't mean anything. A lot of us were back then."
CHAPTER 24: Damascus
Augustus Kimble didn't get to his feet when Arthur was shown into his office, nor did he invite Arthur to sit down. He gazed steadily at him for a moment or two over the top of his rimless bifocals, and then announced in a rolling, rhetorical voice that seemed to be directed more to the walls than to Arthur personally, "Ever since I got this letter I've been racking my brains, trying to figure out why in the world someone from the Drake family would decide to hunt me down after all these years."
He steepled his hands before his chest. "And now here you are in my office, Mr. Drake, and I still have no idea what you're doing here."
"I appreciate your making time to see me," Arthur said.
He had been sitting in one of the windowless basement waiting rooms of the Nashville Housing Authority all afternoon. Babies had cried endlessly, the thin, passionless wail of boredom and ennui. The men and women who sat filling out paperwork looked up every now and then to stare frankly at Arthur, not returning his tentative smiles.
"As I think I explained in my letter, I'm looking into an incident that took place thirty years ago," Arthur said. "On the last night of Clara Kimble's employment at Drake house."
Augustus shook his head. "Oh no, sir. No, sir."
Arthur hesitated. Then he said, "I'm sorry. I should have begun by telling you how deeply I regret the sorrow I'm afraid my family must have caused you."
"Mr. Drake," Augustus broke in impatiently. "Tell me something. How many people did you see in the waiting room this afternoon?"
"Two dozen, three?"
"I suppose so. At least that many."
"This may be difficult for you to understand, but those are people with real problems. It's the middle of November, and they don't have a roof over their heads, or they're worried about losing the one they have. I've got a problem too. It's my job to keep those babies you hear crying out of the cold, and I've got barely two thirds of the budget I had a decade ago to do it with. I simply don't have time to play father confessor to someone like you, with the luxury to feel guilt over thirty-year-old crimes. No sir. No, sir. I'm sorry."
"But Mr. Kimble," Arthur said, "I'm talking about your wife."
The muscles in his jaw clenched. "My wife died a long time ago. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of work to do, and I'd like to get home before nine tonight for a change."
"And your daughter?"
"I don't have a daughter."
"I recently met a woman who called herself Leanne Kimble. She told me that her parents were Augustus and Clara Kimble."
"I'm afraid I don't understand why anyone would tell you such a thing."
"She also told me that my family was complicit in her mother's murder."
Augustus stared at him. He blinked, took off his bifocals, and rubbed his eyes. "I don't know who you've been talking to, but I have no daughter. And the men your grandmother sent after Clara as she was leaving work that night didn't kill her."
Arthur sat down heavily.
"By the time she got to the front gate that night, her cheeks were turning purple from all the broken blood vessels," Augustus said in a calm, distant voice. "Her eyes were almost swollen shut. She had two broken fingers, and a chipped pelvic bone from where they kicked her after she fell down. She lost two front teeth."
Arthur looked down at the floor.
"When I saw Clara like that, I lost control. I went raging up to the main house, ended up getting myself arrested, and leaving my poor wife to deal with everything, including having to bail her husband out of prison. It was too much for her. It would have been too much for any mother, I think, terrified that I would be next, and knowing I wouldn't get off with a thrashing like she did. She had to think about the baby first of all, and in 1962, Riverbend was no place for her to raise a child. As soon as she was well enough, she took my son and got on the first train to Chicago."
Arthur looked up, and found Augustus Kimble staring at him fixedly. "She hadn't been there six months before she stepped off a curb with Robert in her arms and was run over by a yellow cab. It turns out Chicago wasn't any place for a little country girl to try and raise her baby either."
"There's nothing I can say. I'm sorry."
"Well, don't tell me about it," he said angrily. "It's in the Lord's hands now. If you think He's still punishing you and yours for the evil that was done to my sweet wife, then take it up with Jesus. I got tired of being asked for my forgiveness thirty years ago. I'm sick to death of it by now."
"I don't understand. Who would have asked you to forgive them thirty years ago?"
Augustus laughed bitterly. "Damn near everybody who was there that night. Starting with the preacher man who gave Clara my bail money."
"The preacher? You don't mean Mike Humphrey, do you?"
"That's right. The pastor at First Baptist. He was there with the rest of them, wearing a white sheet and lookin' on while Billy Burch and one or two of the others slapped Clara's face blue. It wouldn't surprise me if he threw a couple of punches himself."
"And then he got you out of jail? That was quite a change of heart, wasn't it?"
"Like Saul's on the road to Damascus." For the first time, Augustus Kimble seemed to allow himself to remember the old sorrow. He spoke slowly, picking his words with care. "Clara was on the ground when it happened. She had her arms over her head trying to protect her face, so she couldn't see it clearly, but something came out of the woods. There was a light so bright it burned through her closed lids. God knows what the rest of them saw. They took off running, and after he'd had a few hours to think about it, Pastor Humphrey decided it had been the face of Jesus Christ. Anyway, that's what he told Clara when he brought her my bail money the next morning."
"But you don't believe that," Arthur said quietly.
"I did for a little while. When I was trying to convince Clara not to go to Chicago, I told her it was just like the Archangel Gabriel had come down with his flaming sword to defend her." He sighed heavily. "Clara never believed that for a minute. And then when she was killed with my baby boy in her arms, I had to put out of my mind the idea that there's any justice to be expected here in this lifetime. Don't misunderstand me. I've never doubted we'll all stand before Jesus on Judgment day. But until that final trumpet sounds, Satan's abroad like a ravening lion. That's what I told Pastor Humphrey. That's what I told Billy Burch every time he came whining to me, begging me to forgive him, asking me to pray for him."
"Because of his son," Arthur said, with sudden insight.
Augustus nodded. "His child was born a monster. I guess Billy believed if I could forgive him, the baby might survive. Lord, I don't know. That poor man was never the same after that night in the woods. None of us were."
Augustus abruptly seemed to remember where he was, and who he was talking to.
"You'll have to excuse me now, Mr. Drake. It's past time for me to see my four-thirty appointment."
Marc had been threatening for weeks to take Arthur to Denny's for Thanksgiving dinner, but at the last minute the prospect evidently seemed too gruesome even for him, and the day before Thanksgiving he finally acceded to Arthur's suggestion, dinner at the Greystone Lodge an hour southeast of Riverbend. Arthur's family had occasionally come here to escape the responsibility of holiday entertaining, especially in the years after his grandmother's death. The fire roaring in the huge stone fireplace and the simple, ample fare had always felt more homelike to Arthur than Drake House ever had.
But when he and Marc arrived, Arthur discovered there had been changes made in the past twenty years. Though a Yule log was burning in the fireplace, the WPA-era photographs of Appalachia which had once decorated the log walls had been replaced with Howard Finster paintings. Blank-eyed angels with Crayola flesh tone skin shared the wall with portraits of Elvis and Hank Williams. Above the fireplace hung one of Finster's visions of paradise, a moonscape peopled with dinosaurs and souls of the departed, naked pink stick figures with contented smiles. "Wow," Marc said mildly as they were shown to their table.
The roast turkey was served in paper-thin slices clustered like the petals of a flower around a tablespoon of chestnut dressing. The cranberry sauce had been processed until it was smooth and thin as fresh blood, puddled in the center of a stark white plate. Arthur looked warily across the table at Marc as the sweet potato was brought out shredded, fried into a nest, then filled with peas and a single pearl onion. Marc only grinned and said once the waiter was out of earshot, "Real down home cooking, huh?"
"It's not quite the way I remembered," Arthur said. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Marc said, making designs in the cranberry sauce with his knife. "Really, it's almost as kitsch as Denny's would have been. 'Course, at Denny's I'd only be out $5.95 for your dinner. I don't even wanna know what all this is going to set you back." He laid down his knife, getting a smear of red on the white linen table cloth, and picked up his wine glass. "Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving, baby."
Arthur clinked his glass gently against Marc's. "Happy Thanksgiving."
"Know something? I'm really glad to be here with you."
"Marc," Arthur said softly, touched.
"Yeah, I know. I 'm getting all sentimental in my old age or something." He glanced surreptitiously around at the other diners, a mixture of young professionals and wealthy retirees up from Atlanta. "What do you think would happen if I leaned across the table and gave you a big wet kiss? Would they ever find our bodies?"
Arthur forced himself to smile. "Probably not."
"Shit, I'm sorry. With your family history, that's not really very funny, is it?"
"No, not really."
"So what's going on with all that, anyway? Have you talked to your folks recently?"
Marc looked at him. "Have you talked to them at all since your Dad was up here?"
"Aw, c'mon. They're your parents, Arthur. You can't stay mad at them forever."
"I'm not angry anymore. I just haven't felt like talking to them lately."
"I know you must feel let down and frustrated--"
"All they've ever cared about is that someone might find out. They've paid Billy Burch thousands of dollars over the years in a futile effort to get him to keep his mouth shut. They lied to me for as long as they could."
"It was a long time ago. Things were different back then."
Arthur started to say something, but Marc cut him off. "I'm not excusing it. All I'm saying is, this is your Mom and Dad, no matter what they did."
Arthur smiled a little. "Pretty forgiving talk from someone who refers to his parents as Father Hollywood and the Space Queen."
"Don't change the subject. It's Thanksgiving, Arthur. Maybe when we get home this evening you should give them a call."
"I'm just not ready to talk to them yet. I only got the death certificates from the Cook County registrar a couple of days ago."
"The death certificates? Oh. For Clara Kimble and her baby, you mean? I didn't know you wanted copies."
"Clara and Robert Kimble were killed in a car accident in Chicago in 1963, just like Mr. Kimble told me."
"Don't tell me you doubted him, too."
"I didn't. Not really. But there have been so many lies. I wanted to be certain."
"So now you know for sure that Leanne was lying to you. Any luck finding her?"
Arthur shook his head. "Robin even checked with the college registrar. There was no one named Leanne Kimble ever registered at Blue Ridge. And no one's seen her since."
"Going to Robin's studio classes just to meet you seems like an awfully roundabout way of doing things. And why lie about who she really is? She must have known you would find out."
"I've given up trying to explain it."
"Maybe she's a journalist. You know. Looking to do a story about the decadent old families of the Confederacy or something."
"You don't look very convinced."
"I just have a feeling that what she really wanted was to get into the house. Somehow she found out about Clara Kimble, and she made up the story about being her daughter as a way of gaining access to the house. And it almost worked." Arthur shrugged. "But I can't imagine what she was really looking for."
"The long lost treasure of the Drakes?"
"No doubt. Of course, it's mostly in Coca-Cola shares these days."
Marc snorted. "Seriously, do you think she might come back? Have you thought about telling the police?"
"I can't imagine she would be back."
"It's just been one thing after another for you ever since you got here, hasn't it? Are you sure moving home was such a hot idea?"
"Of course I am," Arthur smiled. "You're here."
"Good answer. But would you have ever come home if I hadn't started school in Atlanta?"
"I don't know," Arthur admitted. "But after twenty years of ghost hunting, it's about time I finally confronted my own."
"You always told me that you couldn't investigate Drake House because it was too personal."
"But now it turns out there have been sightings all over the ridge for decades. Maybe even for centuries, I don't know yet."
"And that makes a difference?"
"When Leanne told me that her mother had been killed on the grounds of Drake House, I was horrified, but at the same time--I know this makes me sound as cold-blooded as Mom and Dad--at the same time, I realized this might be an explanation for all the things I saw and heard growing up in that house. All the things I've experienced just since I moved back."
Marc looked worried. "But nothing that woman told you was true. Clara wasn't Leanne's mother, and she wasn't killed there."
"There's something out there on the ridge, Marc, and after all these years, I'm finally ready to find it."
Marc looked concerned. "That's great, I guess. But do me a favor and wait till spring, would you? It's awfully cold to be running around out in the woods this time of year."
CHAPTER 25: Christmas Eve
Arthur slithered backwards across the rippled surface of the frozen creek, away from the spreading crack in the ice. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see bright lights racing down the hillside.
Ice groaned and shifted, and then gave way.
The next thing he knew was a gentle warmth on the crown of his head. It spread slowly down his back, eventually reaching the very tips of his fingers and toes. The aching, grinding pain in his knee vanished, and he shivered with the delicious sense of being well and whole again. Stretching upwards, he broke the surface of the water and opened his eyes.
The sunlight was cool and golden white, shimmering on the mist that lay on the lowlands. A few delicate fronds arched above the fog, and when the wind stirred them, a cloud of spores fine as powdered cinnamon spread upwards. A hundred feet overhead, the green of the forest canopy hid the sky.
Arthur put his hands on the moss covered bank and pulled himself out of the stream. The vast trees were massy, silent sentinels.
It occurred to him then that there was something strange about the shapes of the trees. He looked again towards the ferns, and saw that they were at least twelve feet tall.
A bird called somewhere nearby. He turned, and instead of a bird, saw a beast that stood taller than the fern trees.
The air over Arthur's head began to shimmer like a heat mirage. He put up his arms in a futile attempt to ward it away, but the bank of liquid air descended inexorably towards him. All the pain and cold returned as it enveloped his hands. He opened his mouth and found he didn't have breath to scream. The cold lay against his face like a blanket for a moment, and then he broke through.
Water was pouring off him. His clothes were drenched, their sodden weight threatening to pull him back down into the stream, but something else had hold of him as well. Other faces were only inches from his own, mouthing words that Arthur could not hear. Two fists were wrapped tight around the collar of his coat, and with a sudden, violent effort, Arthur was dragged free of the stream. He collapsed on the icy bank and was bundled over onto his face. Hands reached around under his belly, balled into fists and jerked roughly upwards and back. Water began to pour from his nose and mouth, and the sounds of the living world returned in a rush.
"I don't think we can wait for the rescue service," Dennis was shouting. "We've gotta get him up the hill ourselves."
"Aw, c'mon baby," Gavin pleaded, "Don't do this. You're gonna ruin Christmas."
Continued in Virginia's Trust