Available from Amazon as ebook and in print.
pictures of actual locations, etc. from the novel www.pinterest.com/lindabennettpen/al-capone-at-the-blanche-hotel/
Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel tells of lives unfolding in different centuries, but linked and irrevocably altered by a series of murders in 1930.
Lake City, Florida, June, 1930: Al Capone checks in for an unusually long stay at the Blanche Hotel, a nice enough joint for an insignificant little whistle stop. The following night, young Jack Blevins witnesses a body being dumped heralding the summer of violence to come. One-by-one, people controlling county vice activities swing from KKK ropes. No moonshine distributor, gaming operator, or brothel madam, black or white, is safe from the Klan's self-righteous vigilantism. Jack's older sister Meg, a waitress at the Blanche, and her fiancé, a sheriff’s deputy, discover reasons to believe the lynchings are cover for a much larger ambition than simply ridding the county of vice. Someone, possibly backed by Capone, has secret plans for filling the voids created by the killings. But as the body count grows and crosses burn, they come to realize this knowledge may get all of them killed.
Gainesville, Florida, August, 2011: Liz Reams, an up and coming young academic specializing in the history of American crime, impulsively moves across the continent to follow a man who convinces her of his devotion yet refuses to say the three simple words I love you. Despite the entreaties of friends and family, she is attracted to edginess and a certain type of glamour in her men, both living and historical. Her personal life is an emotional roller coaster, but her career options suddenly blossom beyond all expectation, creating a very different type of stress. To deal with it all, Liz loses herself in her professional passion, original research into the life and times of her favorite bad boy, Al Capone. What she discovers about 1930’s summer of violence, and herself in the process, leaves her reeling at first and then changed forever.
June 14, 1930
Jack jammed a finger into each ear and swallowed hard. Any other time, he wouldn’t even notice the stupid sound. The river always sorta slurped just before it pulled stuff underground.
His stomach heaved again. Maybe he shouldn’t look either, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the circling current. When the head slipped under the water, the toe end lifted up. Slowly the tarpaulin wrapped body, at least that’s what it sure looked like, went completely vertical. It bobbed around a few times and finally gurgled its way down the sinkhole. Then everything went quiet . . . peaceful . . . crazily normal. Crickets sawed away again. An ole granddaddy bullfrog croaked his lonesomeness into the sultry midnight air.
Crouched in the shelter of a large palmetto clump, Jack’s muscles quivered and sweat rolled into his eyes, but he remained stock-still. His heart hammered like he had just finished the fifty yard dash, but that was nothing to what Zeke was probably feeling. He was still just a little kid in lots of ways.
When creeping damp warmed the soles of Jack’s bare feet, he grimaced and glanced sideways. Zeke looked back with eyes the size of saucers and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Jack shook his head then wrinkled his nose as the odor of ammonia and damp earth drifted up. He’d always heard that fear produced its own peculiar odor, but nobody ever said how close you had to be to actually smell it. He prayed you had to be real close; otherwise, he and Zeke were in big trouble.
The stranger standing on the riverbank stared out over the water for so long Jack wondered if the man thought the body might suddenly come flying up out of the sinkhole and float back upriver against the current. Funny, the things that popped into your head when you were scared witless.
The man removed a rag from his pocket and mopped his face. He paused, looked upstream, then turned and stared into the surrounding forest. As his gaze swept over their hiding place, Jack held his breath and prayed, but he could feel Zeke’s chest rising and falling in ragged jerks so he slipped his hand onto Zeke’s arm. Under the gentle pressure of Jack’s fingers, Zeke’s muscles trembled and jumped beneath his soft ebony skin. When Zeke licked his lips and parted them like he was about to yell out, Jack clapped a hand over the open mouth and wrapped his other arm around Zeke’s upper body, pulling him close and holding him tight. Zeke’s heart pounded against the bib of his overalls like it might jump clean out of his chest.
With one final look ‘round at the river and forest, the stranger strode to the hand crank of a Model T. The engine caught momentarily, then spluttered and died. A stream of profanity split the quiet night. The crank handle jerked from its shaft and slammed back into place. More grinding and more swearing followed until the thing finally coughed to life for good and a car door slammed. Only then did Jack relax his hold on Zeke.
“I want outta here. I wanna go home,” Zeke whispered hoarsely.
Lucky Zeke. Before Meg left home to move into town, Jack would have felt the same way. Now he didn’t care if he ever went home.
Jack cocked an ear in the Ford’s direction. “Hush so I can listen. I think he’s gone, but we’re gonna belly crawl in the opposite direction just to be sure we ain’t seen.”
“Through that briar patch? I ain’t got on no shoes or shirt.”
“Me neither. Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”
“I ain’t no baby,” Zeke hissed as he scrambled after Jack.
When the pine forest thinned out, Jack raised up on his knees for a look around. Without a word, Zeke jumped to his feet and started toward the road. Jack grabbed a strap on Zeke’s overalls and snatched him back onto his bottom.
“You taken complete leave of your senses?” Wiping sweat out of his eyes, Jack pushed his shaggy blonde hair to one side. “Check it out before you go bustin’ into the open.”
“Why you so bossy all the time? I ain’t stupid, ya know. Just cause you turned twelve don’t make you all growed up.”
Zeke’s lower lip stuck out, trembling a little. Whether it was from fear or anger, Jack wasn’t sure. Probably both. Peering into the night, he strained for the flash of headlights. Nothing but bright moonlight illuminated the road’s deep white sand. Finally confident that no vehicles were abroad, he grabbed Zeke’s hand and pulled him to his feet. With one final glance left, then right, they leapt onto the single lane track and ran like the devil was on their tails.
August 15, 2011
Liz Reams glanced at the caller ID and grimaced. She didn’t have time for this, but guilt wouldn’t let her put the conversation off any longer. Sighing, she pressed the talk button and prepared to listen with forbearance and humility.
“Hello, Roberta. I’m so glad to hear your voice. I was beginning to think we were going to play phone tag forever.” Internally, Liz squirmed. Her conscience yelled, liar, you returned calls when you figured you’d get her voicemail.
Roberta’s reply made Liz cringe. While she endured the diatribe pouring through her cell phone, Liz eyed her purse, book bag, and laptop case huddled together on the sofa. She couldn’t afford to be late today of all days. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze paused on her laptop. She had paid more than a month’s rent for the thing, but as much as she loved its power and speed, it was also a constant reminder of her dereliction. It only compounded her guilt that everything Roberta said was true.
“I’m really, really sorry. I know I said you would have it by now, but I’ve been in the process of moving. You know what that’s like.”
Several expletives burned through Liz’s earpiece and then there was ominous silence.
“Look, I know how lucky I am to have a career practically dropped into my lap. You’ve been wonderfully patient and I’ve let you down. I feel so bad. I promise, no later than October . . .” Glancing at the calendar, Liz paused. “I mean November 1st. I just need to get the first couple months of teaching behind me, then I can focus on the novel.”
An angry question barked through the ether.
Liz tried to keep her voice cheerful and her tone even. “Of course I’m still seeing Jonathan. You know he’s the reason I moved to Florida. You’ll have something by November 1st. I promise. I’ve really got to go.”
The call ended with Roberta’s appeal to conscience ringing in Liz’s ears, leaving her feeling like an ungrateful, spoiled child. Poor Roberta. She deserved better. Several years ago while on semester break and bored out of her mind, Liz dashed off a few ideas and half a manuscript. On a whim, she sent Roberta, a friend of a friend, a query letter for a series of mystery novels and the sample chapters. She’d been amazed by the response. Roberta had been more than enthusiastic. She believed Liz could be the next Mary Higgins Clark. Liz was thrilled and flattered, but alas, her attention to her fiction had been stop-start at best. Now with the move to Florida, she had a terrible inkling her new situation wouldn’t allow time to finish her long overdue first novel.
While her first allegiance had to be to her professional responsibilities, after one of Roberta’s talks, Liz would be unsettled for days. She feared her editor might be right: that a lucrative career was hers for the taking, that academia paid squat, and that Liz would live to regret neglecting her fiction for dusty research libraries, unwashed college students, and writing articles for esoteric journals that nobody read. As to the new deadline, Liz snatched November 1st out of thin air, but crossing that bridge could wait. Giving herself a last once over in the living room mirror, she slammed her apartment door and dashed to her Prius for the twenty-minute trip to campus. This job was a fabulous last minute save and Liz had no intention of blowing it.
The security guard in the building’s reception area checked his list and gave Liz a set of keys, two of fairly recent vintage, one battered and old fashioned. He then directed her to the third floor wing, which housed the University of Florida history department’s administrative suite. According to Maria, the departmental secretary, Liz’s office was finally cleared of the previous occupant’s possessions. After winding through the old building’s maze of hallways, she stood before a door that could have used a fresh coat of varnish. She considered the set of keys and selected the one that looked as old and tarnished as the door’s heavy Yale lock. Inserting and turning it, she heard the click of the lock’s tumblers. She flung the door wide and peered into the sanctum from which she would now conduct her professional life.
My lord, girl, what you’re willing to do for love.
She took three steps, dropped her things on the desk’s scarred top, and took inventory: two metal folding chairs, a worn faux leather desk chair, and a bookshelf that listed slightly to the left—a converted storage closet just like the departmental secretary had described it. At least the AC was top notch. After Seattle’s mild summers, north Florida’s swelter was a physical blow, one that took her breath away. Inhaled air felt positively liquid, making her wonder if drowning would feel any different. But Jonathan was worth all of it, decidedly worth the inconvenience, the climate, the life altering disruptions, the difficult career choices.
She glanced at the wall clock. Damn. Five ‘til nine.
She hurried down the hall to an old-fashioned wood panel door with Conference Room stenciled in gold leaf on its frosted window. Hoping to slip in without drawing too much attention, she opened the door as quietly as possible and stepped inside. Her heart sank to the soles of her feet. She crossed the entire length of the room to the only remaining chair, her new colleagues’ eyes following her progress to the last moment, including observing her tucking her skirt under her knees before descending onto the hard wooden seat. She could feel a red flush crawling up from her throat and over her jawline until the apples of her cheeks felt like two glowing coals.
Sheesh, girl. You’d think after orals, defending a dissertation, and teaching college juniors and seniors, you would be immune to stage fright.
“Good morning, Dr. Reams. Glad you could join us.” Hugh Raymond, head of the department, smiled before continuing. “Everyone, this is our newest addition. She’s taking the spot vacated when Dr. Hargreaves left us so unexpectedly. For those who haven’t heard, Dr. Reams’s specialization is American crime, but all of you will want to make her feel especially welcome. For this year, she’s keeping you from having to take on sections of the odious freshman survey courses.”
Dr. Raymond was a youngish forty something, made distinguished in appearance by a few strands of gray at the temples of an otherwise dark, wavy head of hair. His prodigious scholarship made him a rock star among his colleagues. Liz felt very fortunate to be working with him, but a little anxious as well. Although he was only twelve or so years older, from their first meeting he had unsettled her. The man was just so very intense.
After a few minutes of departmental housekeeping, Dr. Raymond stopped speaking and let his gaze drop to the table. When he looked up, his expression was deadly serious and Liz sensed her colleagues’ attention becoming much more focused.
“I suspect you’re wondering why this meeting couldn’t wait until after student advisement has ended, but this news is best served fresh. As some of you already know, the university is looking for ways to economize, as are most brick and mortars. Welcome to the brave new world of on-line degrees.”
An undercurrent of grim laughter and muttered sarcasm filled the room. He allowed it to subside before he continued. “Personal feelings aside, people, we are in a fight for funding and I, for one, do not intend to see our department shredded in the financial meat grinder. So, what does that mean?” He paused and let his eyes drift from face to face. “Each of us must find new ways to market studying history to technology obsessed undergraduates. We’ve got to create a wow factor for a subject that so many of them learned to hate in high school. I expect each of you to find a way to improve our appeal. No exceptions. No excuses. Got it?”
Amid groans and snorts, every head eventually nodded.
“Good. Now, go forth and be creative.”
As chairs scraped back from the table, Liz exchanged greetings and shook hands, but her attention wasn’t totally on the brief conversations. Her head swam with the long list of things she needed to do before classes started next week.
She was easing her way toward the door when she heard Dr. Raymond say, “Dr. Reams, could you come to my office for a minute? There’s something I need to discuss with you.”
Several heads swiveled in her direction. Liz felt the red creeping up from her throat again. She hated being an object of envy, pity, or curiosity and she sensed that all of those emotions were prompting the speculation in her colleagues’ eyes. Liz’s smile tightened as she glanced toward her boss and nodded. She couldn’t imagine what he wanted to discuss. She hadn’t been there long enough to commit some grievous error and they had pretty well covered all-important topics during the hiring process.
When she and Dr. Raymond were seated in his spacious corner office, he leaned back in his chair and folded his hands loosely over his midsection. To keep from squirming like a kid in the principal’s office, Liz concentrated her attention on their surroundings—lovely large windows overlooking the quad, crown molding on the ceiling, framed photographs, diplomas, and awards on the wall space not covered by books. Liz’s nose twitched at the slightly musty smell wafting from the bookcases. Scattered among ancient tomes, volumes with glossy dust jackets popped out by contrast. Several of them bore Dr. Raymond’s name as author. Liz dragged her attention back to the desk and met his gaze. Smile lines crinkled the skin around his eyes.
“Are you ever called Liz?”
Trying to keep the surprise from her voice, she replied, “Actually, it’s what my friends and family have called me all of my life.”
“It suits you.” Dr. Raymond propped his elbows on the chair arms and made a bridge of his fingertips. “Liz, I’m expecting big things from you. Your references are outstanding. The department head in Seattle sounded rather peeved when I told him I was offering you a job. Something about losing the best draw they ever had.”
“He’s a great guy, but occasionally given to hyperbole.”
“I hope not because you were hired based on his recommendation.” Dr. Raymond raised an eyebrow and waited for her reply.
The muscles at the base of Liz’s skull tightened. He might be regretting hiring her for some reason she couldn’t fathom, but that was ridiculous. She hadn’t yet taught a class or served on a committee. “I’ll do my best to exceed expectations.”
“I’m sure you will. And speaking of expectations,” he paused and eyed Liz with an inscrutable expression. His gaze shifted to the wall behind her for a moment before he continued, “I have what may seem a surprising proposal for someone who’s just joined us, but what I said about being in a fight for funding was actually understated. We have no choice. We’ve got to increase our undergraduate enrollment.” He leaned forward slightly. “Liz, I want you particularly to work on the problem of attracting more students to our department. Kids today aren’t interested in studying history beyond their basic degree requirements. They expect to be entertained. They want a wow factor. Apparently the history of the world in which they live isn’t glamorous enough for them. Come up with something exceptional and you won’t be teaching survey courses next year. And most importantly, it’ll put you on the fast track to tenure. Think you’re up to the challenge?”
Stunned and feeling somewhat slow witted, Liz could only stammer, “How . . . how wonderful. Of course. I’m . . . thrilled at the opportunity.”
“Good.” Dr. Raymond let out a long breath and then smiled broadly. “Crime is an unusual area of interest for a young woman. What’s your favorite period?”
“Prohibition. Gangsters, Tommy guns, bathtub gin, speakeasies, G-men, the whole lot. Someday, I hope to produce a monograph on the psychological relationship between Al Capone and Elliot Ness.” Damn. In her desire to make a good impression, her tone had quickly become vehement, didactic even.
Dr. Raymond chuckled softly. “I’m sure plumbing those depths will prove fascinating.”
“Yes, well . . . I . . . I think so.” Her voice actually trembled at the thought that her new boss might be finding humor in the objects of her professional passion. Liz wanted to slide onto the floor and crawl away. She had to get off on the right foot with him and her new colleagues. Since cutting her ties in Seattle, she needed this job and she desperately wanted to prove herself in this academic version of the big leagues. Now, she also needed to justify the confidence Dr. Raymond placed in her despite the humor he found in her choice of research topics. Of course, not everyone shared her passion for the likes of Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and the other bad boys of history.
Dr. Raymond tilted his head to one side, making Liz feel like a bug pinned to a laboratory specimen board. “You know, some in the department had reservations about hiring someone so young and with such a narrow specialty, but I think you’re going to work out very well. By the way, tell me again who published your dissertation?”
Liz stared at the diplomas on the wall behind him. Perhaps it was her new colleagues’ doubts filtering through Dr. Raymond’s demeanor that she had sensed at the beginning of their conversation. Whatever it was, it sent her into a spasm of schoolgirl awkwardness, which did nothing for her self-image. She hadn’t felt this flummoxed in a long time.
As she forced her gaze to meet his, she was surprised to see a fleeting emotion disappear from his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would have said it was interest of a more personal nature. That was a complication she really didn’t . . .
Good grief! You’re really on a roll, girl.
Her imagination was in overdrive. It seemed determined to dwell on the ridiculous. All of the conflicting emotions that had accompanied her quick decision to leave her well-organized, planned out life in Seattle must be catching up with her. Snapping herself back to the topic at hand, Liz gave him the name of a small northwestern historical journal. While he wrote, she became aware that her fingers were dancing on the chair’s armrests. She forced them into the more subdued activity of picking at an imaginary piece of lint on her skirt.
Dr. Raymond put his pen down and looked up. Whatever it was she had seen in his eyes a second ago was gone. “Well, I’m sure you have a lot to do. I know I do.”
“Yes. Of course. I didn’t mean to keep you.”
Liz fled down the hall to the safety of her office. She wasn’t sure whether she liked her new boss or not on a personal level, but he was the least of her worries at the moment. With the door closed, she plopped behind her rickety desk and blew out the breath she had been unconsciously holding. The words “overwhelmed” and “drowning” came to mind. She leaned her head to one side and stretched her neck muscles, then repeated the action in the other direction. The tension eased and exhilaration took its place.
Welcome to big time academia, Lizzie girl. All your dreams are about to come true, ready or not.
Swiveling her chair toward her only window, her mind drifted to the choices she had made during the last few years and all that she had recently taken on. With a shiny new Ph.D., teaching in a small liberal arts college in Seattle had been a perfect fit. Drawing back the shades of the past for eager students and pursuing research for publication were her passions. In truth, the publication of her dissertation, albeit in an obscure journal, had been more satisfying than publishing fiction could ever be. She was completely sure of that, yet a small worm of doubt kept her attached to the idea of a fiction career. If she failed to achieve all she hoped in academia, success in fiction would make a nice consolation prize.
Of course, her decision to take the Florida position now made her fallback plan a lot more difficult, if not impossible. Instead of a light teaching load, she would be lecturing in auditoriums filled with seas of faceless students numbering upwards of 300 per section. The grading alone would consume her body and soul. Unlike her tenured colleagues, she hadn’t been assigned a teaching assistant, that modern equivalent of slave clothed as graduate student. On top of everything else, there was now the edict to be amazingly creative so that the department could attract kids who hated history. No doubt it was unattractive self-importance, but she now felt like the department’s survival virtually rested on her shoulders. Shit! Al and Elliot, along with her fiction, would have to wait for another year, maybe longer.
And then there was Jonathan.
Liz wistfully followed a Monarch butterfly as it danced over the pink and white powder puffs of an elderly mimosa hovering just below her windowsill. How simple its life must be. Butterflies surely didn’t have to deal with the expectations and opinions of others. She loved Jonathan deeply. That should be enough for her family and friends, but they had been less than supportive when she followed her Navy pilot across the continent, saying no woman in her right mind would make that kind of move without a ring on her finger.
Well, too late now.
Liz turned and began pounding away on her laptop replying to frantic students who were just discovering that their academic advisor had changed. Mid-stroke of the umpteenth reply, her cell rang.
“Hey, Baby, coming to Jax for the weekend?” The very sound of Jonathan’s Texas twang made her heart sing.
“How I wish I could, but I’m already eyebrows deep in work. How about dinner here Saturday night and stay over until Sunday as consolation?”
“Great, but not possible. Got a command performance at the Officer’s Club. Captain’s hosting a dinner. I was really hoping you’d be here. The guys think you’re a figment of my imagination.”
“Ooh, I really wish I could. You know how I love you in those dress whites. How about next weekend? Things should be a little less crazy around here by then.”
“No can do. Got duty. How about I drive over next Monday afternoon? I’m off duty ‘til Tuesday noon.”
“It’s a date. Love you and can’t wait to see you.”
“Me, too. Gotta go. See ya soon.”
Liz slammed her phone back into her purse. Damn it! She’d done it again. She used the L word. For his part, Jonathan implied that he loved her, led her to believe that he loved her, had whooped with joy over the University of Florida job offer, but he never actually said the blasted word. Me too was as close as he ever got.
“Jack Blevins, where have you been? It’s after midnight.” Meg grabbed her little brother’s arm and pulled him through her bedroom window. “If Daddy finds out, he’ll skin you alive.”
“Well, he ain’t gonna lests you tell him.” Jack hit the floor with a thump. “Man, I’m glad to be home.”
Meg’s eyebrows rose. “That’s sure new. Mama says you stay gone as much as you can get away with these days.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Jack kicked at the edge of the rag rug beside his sister’s bed. “If I’d known you was coming home, I’d of stayed around.”
“Nice to know you haven’t gone completely wild.”
Jack grinned at Meg and winked. “Not yet, but you never know. It could happen any day now. At least that’s what Mama says.” As he picked a thorn out of his elbow, he became quietly thoughtful. His words turned halting when he spoke again. “Meg, you ain’t gonna believe what me and Zeke seen at the sinkhole.”
“And just what were y’all doing down there?” Meg asked as she pulled the window screen tight and fastened the hook that held it shut.
“We was night fishin’, but that ain’t the important part. We seen a body go in the river. It went right down the sinkhole.”
Meg fixed her brother with a maternal glare. “Jack, your imagination is getting out of hand. One of these days, your tales are going to get you in trouble.”
“I’m not making this up. We really seen it.”
“What you saw was probably a big log.”
“It was a body, I tell you. For real.”
“And just how do you know it was a body?” Meg asked. Jack really needed to grow up and stop this kind of nonsense.
“It was shaped like a full grown man, a great big one. The water sucked at him, kinda slurped him underground. It was real creepy. Made me sick to my stomach.”
“Well, now. Did this body have help or was it obliging and jump into the river on its own?”
“Don’t make fun of me! We seen a man throw a body in the Santa Fe River down at the sinkhole. It was wrapped in a canvas sheet like they use at the tobacco warehouse and it was all tied up with rope.”
Meg studied him for a moment, trying to decide if he was telling the truth. “If you could see that much, did you recognize the man who dumped the body?”
“Naw, couldn’t see his face. He had on a topcoat with the collar turned up and a big ole Panama hat. He was a funny lookin’ sight, I can tell you.” Jack giggled softly.
Of course. Ever the jokester. Jack was leading up to a big belly laugh at her expense. “What else did you and Zeke see this mystery man do?”
“Cuss and have a hard time starting his car. If we hadn’t been so scared, we’d of laughed our heads off.” Jack grinned up at Meg with a gleam in his eye. “Zeke wet himself he was so scared.”
“Jack Blevins, you should be ashamed. Zeke’s a year younger than you and gets scared real easy. You shouldn’t play tricks on him.”
Jack stopped grinning and his face flamed. “I ain’t lying. We seen it. It ain’t a trick and I can prove it. I’ll know that car if I see it again. Beat up kinda yellow Model T with both passenger side fenders missing. I even got part of the tag number. BZ25 something.”
Jack’s tall tales didn’t usually run to such particular details. Meg looked directly into his eyes and her heart skipped a beat.
“We seen it! Why won’t you believe me?” His voice was louder with each syllable.
Meg clapped a hand over her brother’s mouth and hissed, “You’re gonna wake up Mama and Daddy.”
When Jack squirmed free, Meg placed a hand on each shoulder and forced him to look at her. “Does anyone else know where you went tonight? Any of the other boys?”
“Nope. Me and Zeke didn’t tell nobody. We slipped out after the folks was in bed.”
“Good. You have no idea what you may have stumbled onto.” She paused for a moment and then her eyes narrowed. “Did you bring everything back home . . . your poles, tackle, and all?”
Jack paled under his deep summer tan. “Oh crap! We left the rods and reels at the river. When we heard the car comin’, we shoved them under some bushes and hid. I thought it might be Daddy.”
“Would anybody recognize the things as belonging to you?”
“No. Zeke brung ‘em. They was new. His grandpa bought the rods and reels just last week, but they wasn’t all that special. Man, Zeke’s gonna get a whuppin’ for sure and it’s all my fault. I talked him into sneaking ‘em and slipping out tonight.”
Meg was quiet while she thought about what they should do. Kids in regular families would tell their fathers, but that was out of the question. She squeezed Jack’s shoulders and said, “You’ve got to promise me that you won’t talk about this to anyone. Do you hear me?”
Jack looked up with huge eyes and nodded. His voice trembled slightly as he replied, “You’re scaring the peewaddin’ outta me. Me and Zeke already decided not to talk about it. I only told you ‘cause I can tell you anything.”
Meg sighed and dropped down onto the bed, pulling Jack down beside her. She slid a protective arm around his boney twelve-year-old shoulders and spoke in a calmer, more soothing tone. “Jack, I think we need to be very careful. I’m not sure exactly what you saw tonight, but whatever it was, it can’t be good. Talking about it could bring that man after you. Understand?”
Jack nodded. “I ain’t gonna talk and I’ll make sure Zeke keeps his mouth shut.”
“Good.” Meg moved away so that she could look directly at Jack. She hated what she was about to say. “Daddy doesn’t want you playing with Zeke. You know what he says about the races mixing. It’s really unfair, but you know how he gets when he’s mad. He means it, Jack. For both your sakes, you boys have got to stop.”
“But Zeke’s my best friend.”
“I know. I like Zeke and his grandfather, too.” She ruffled her brother’s shaggy straw colored hair and hunched her shoulders. “I don’t know what this world is coming to. Mr. Taylor and Daddy used to be friends.”
The pair sat quietly for a few seconds, then Meg gave Jack a little hug. “Tell you what. We’ll say we want to walk home after church tomorrow. We’ll get the rods and hide them in the hollow log behind the hog lot. You can get them back to Zeke later.”
Jack slipped his arms around his sister’s middle. “Thanks. You’re the best.”
Meg’s irritation faded away as she returned his hug. Not many twelve-year-old boys would be so openly affectionate with their sisters. Despite the six-year difference in their ages, she and Jack were extremely close, loving each other all the more for being the children who survived. When Jack was a first grader, scarlet fever descended on the rural community’s two-room school and he came down with it almost immediately. Meg sat by his bedside for days. He was small for his age and looked so frail, his face under its red rash almost as white as the pillowcase on which his feverish head rested. When he finally recovered enough to regain his senses, it was Meg who told him that Jimmy, their two-year-old brother, had been buried the day before. It was twelve-year-old Meg, not their parents, who reassured the heartbroken Jack that he hadn’t killed the baby. If she ever had children of her own, she wasn’t sure that she could love them any more than she did the knobby-kneed little beanpole who was squeezing her in half at that moment.
As Meg thought about Jack’s story, icy fingers closed around her heart. The world was a dangerous place. People got killed all the time. All you had to do was read the newspaper or listen to the radio to know that evil men did whatever they wanted without any fear of being brought to justice. Meg pulled Jack closer and rested her chin against his blonde mop. If something happened to this little brother too, she wasn’t sure she could bear it.