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2013 Inspy Award

2013 Carol Award Finalist

 
 

 

Amaryllis, Mississippi is a scrappy little town of strong backbone and southern hospitality. A brick-paved Main Street, a park, and the legendary ghost in its ancient cemetery are all part of its heritage. Everybody knows everybody in Amaryllis, and gossip wafts on the breeze. Its denizens are friendly, its families tight. On the surface Amaryllis seems much like the flower for which it's named—bright and fragrant.

But the Amaryllis flower is poisonous.

In the past three years five unsolved murders have occurred within the town. All the victims were women. All were killed in similar fashion in their own homes. And just two nights ago—a sixth victim.

Clearly a killer lives and breathes among the good citizens of Amaryllis. And now three terrified women are sure they know who he is—someone close to them. None is aware of the others' suspicions. Independently, each woman must make the heartrending choice to bring the killer down.

But each suspects a different man.



"Moves along briskly. The popular novelist's talent
continues to flower ... and sales will flourish."

--Publishers Weekly




Copyright 2011 by Brandilyn Collins



Prologue

MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2011


“Get me a Bible and some cigarettes—and I’ll talk.”

Chief Cotter stared at the person facing him across the worn wooden table. Man, it was stuffy in the cramped interrogation room. And what kind of crazy stall tactic was this? He had no time for it, not in his present state of mind. He’d barely slept since Erika Hollinger’s murder a week ago. And the pressure to nab the killer off the town’s streets laid hard on him.

He fired back with a question.

The answer hit like a sucker punch.

 


Chapter 1


MONDAY – THURSDAY, APRIL 18 - 21, 2011

Cherrie Mae


You can tell an awful lot bout people from cleanin their houses. Like the time I drug a hot pink thong out from under ol Ed McAllister’s bed—a lacy little piece a cloth that wouldn’t a fit round his wife’s hiney in her best days. So what did Verna McAllister do to protect her husband’s stellar reputation? Tried to hide her shock while swearin up and down she used that thong for a dust rag. Mm-hmm. Thing’s no bigger than a piece a lint. Besides, who cleans that house, her or me?

I’ve had plenty other revelations. Like when I seen that hoard a sleepin pills stuck down in Alicia May Alkin’s sweater drawer—enough to kill at least two and a half people. And her so happy and all after marryin the man a her dreams.

Words is just air. Faces tell you more, if you pay attention. (Most people don’t.) But houses, they hold the darkest secrets.

Not that I go pokin round the places I clean. Well, maybe I do, but a woman’s got to have somethin to keep her brain goin while she scrubs toilets. Like Sherlock Holmes said, “My mind rebels at stagnation.” Besides anybody in this town’ll tell you Cherrie Mae Devine’s the best housecleaner around. I got my customer list—white and black folk alike—so full there ain’t room for one more, and that’s a fact. So I figure some rovin eyes now and then ain’t gon hurt nobody. I always keep my discoveries to myself.

But mercy, what I seen today.

Austin Bradmeyer, mayor a Amaryllis, is a finicky man. Finicky enough he wants me cleanin his house twice a week—every Thursday and Monday—even though the missus don’t work, so what she do all day? The mayor keeps his things just so, and that includes his fancy mahogany office. Big desk and leather chair, a straight-back settee, and huge shelves fulla books. The top a the desk is always perfect, no cluttered papers, every pen in the wooden holder. Even his ash tray is always emptied into the trash can. (Which don’t keep smokin from bein a nasty habit.) I happen to know that office is Mayor B’s private little place. The missus ain’t even allowed to go in there.

See, Mayor B ain’t as nice and gentlemanly as folks think. I seen him more than once come home for lunch and yell at his wife over nothin. And I mean stompin round, red-faced mad. Fire in his eyes like the devil. So outta control he don’t even care I seen him—as if anybody would believe my word over his anyway. Then he’ll turn it off, just like that. Light a cigarette and go back to his plastics factory, no doubt smilin at everbody there.

I done lived long enough to know this: people can fool you. You think they one thing—they might be somethin else altogether.

Today, Thursday, Mayor B was at work as usual. His factory has a second shift that goes till 11 p.m., but the mayor keeps regular business hours in his office. Mrs. Eva B said she had to run out to Piggly Wiggly, and in case she didn’t return before I was through, she left my check on the kitchen counter. The door slammed behind her on her way out. Mrs. B’s always in a hurry.

I finished my dustin in the formal dinin room and headed to Mayor B’s office, totin my fold-up, two-step stool. Have to drag that thing to ever room to dust up high. House cleanin would be a whole lot easier if I was six foot tall.

In the office I set down my stool and walked to the desk I done dusted a thousand times. And found myself eyein the shiny gold drawer handles.

Like iron filings to a magnet my hand reached for the top drawer. I glanced over my shoulder out to the front hallway, even though I knew nobody was there. My fingers pulled the drawer. It rolled open so easy.

Green hangin files is what I seen. Inside em, folder after beige folder with labels like “City Council” and “Downtown.” But the one that caught my eye was “Closet Killings.”

That sent a chill rollin down my back.

Three years and five victims. Then, just two nights ago—Lord, have mercy on us—a sixth. I could recite each name and date, knew each woman myself. The whole town did. The population a Amaryllis barely reaches 1700, so who’s not gon know everbody else?

I pulled out the manila folder. Laid it on the desk.

My heart took to trippin.

For a minute I almost put the file back. Didn’t want to see, didn’t want to know. Instead I opened the folder.

On top sat a full-page color picture a Martha Edgars, from the waist up. Blood all over her, a knife buried in her neck. She’d been shoved in a closet, clothes hangin round her. Her eyes was wide open like she died in utter terror.

I let out a little scream and tipped my face to the ceilin. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Couldn’t pray no more than the precious Savior’s name. My breaths got all staggery, and sweat popped down my back. I leaned against the desk and pulled in air.

Not that I hadn’t known how Martha died. But to see it for myself …

I flipped over the picture. Couldn’t bear to see it again. I lowered my eyes—and saw photo #2. Sara Fulgerson. Just as bloody. Knife just as deep in her neck, but the handle was different. Sara’s eyes was closed. Like Martha, she was propped up against a closet wall. 

My heart liked to beat right outta me. I pressed a hand to my chest.

Martha was my age—62. Sara, 57. Both white women.

What crazy voice in my head was it tol me to look at the third picture, I’ll never know.

It was Sonya Stelligman, 61. Another knife in the neck, blood everwhere. She sat in her closet. Sonya was a black lady, went to my church. I loved that woman.

Next I saw Alma Withers, only 48 when she was killed. Similar stab wound. Then Carla Brewster, 64. Butchered the same way. Alma was white, Carla, black.

There they was—pictures a the first five murders, in order. That Mayor B, he was meticulous, all right.

My knees went weak. I huffed down into Mayor B’s chair and leaned back, steadyin myself. Alma’s photo still glared up at me, should I turn my face back to it. Last thing I wanted to do.

But there was one more killin—the most recent. Erika Hollinger, white girl jus twenty years old. Husband sent off to the Afghanistan war, then blown to pieces by a bomb six months ago. Erika had been a town wild child, raised by a single mother who drank too much. As for Erika’s husband, Brent Hollinger, I’d cleaned his parents’ house for years. Watched Brent grow. He was a good boy. I went to his and Erika’s weddin—just about the only black face there. Later I went to Brent’s funeral. Who’d a guessed within half a year Erika would be dead too. Now, two days after her murder I still didn’t know when her funeral would be. The police had yet to release her body.

Somethin beyond me made my hand flip over Alma’s picture. And there sat Erika. Knifed in the neck and bloodied, the ends a her thick brown hair clotted in red. Once pretty face all blotched and purple.

My body went to shakin. Good thing Mrs. B didn’t choose that time to come home. Don’t think I coulda moved.

The whole town knew the victims was all found in their closets. And that one person killed em all. The police said no doubt bout that, because ever crime scene was the same. Now I seen the proof. Each knife handle looked different, but from the size they all looked to be parin knives. Somethin ever woman would have in her kitchen.

I slapped the file shut. Why did the mayor have these pictures?

They had to come from the police. But those men were a tight bunch, two of em father and son. And Chief Adam Cotter ruled the roost. Cotter and Mayor B was tight, too. But the chief had kept a zipped lip on details a the Closet Killings. So to make an extra set a pictures a ever murder for Austin Bradmeyer—and let the man take em home? I couldn’t see Mr. I’m-the-Boss-Here Cotter doin that, even for the mayor. Besides, why would Mayor B want those horrible things?

The grandfather clock in the front hallway bonged, bringin me back to my senses. I still had an office to clean. If Mrs. B come back she’d wonder what I been doin with my time.

I picked up the folder—with two fingers like I didn’t want to touch it—and spread apart the green hangin file to drop it back in. That’s when I seen the ring restin on the bottom a the file.

My heart knew what it was almost before my brain kicked in—and my muscles just plain froze.

Erika Hollinger, born Erika Lokin, got the ring from her mother on her sixteenth birthday, handed down from her great grandmother. Far as I know she never took it off. Two days ago I seen Erika at the drugstore late that afternoon. She seemed upset. “How you doin?” I touched her arm. She shook her head in that determined way a hers—“I’m fine”—but wiped her eyes. Sad, her bein so young and losin a husband and all. So I took myself home and baked a batch a brownies and carted em over to Erika’s house to cheer her up. We ended up sittin on her couch like two good friends—which we really ain’t—eatin those brownies and watchin a movie. Around 10:00 I went home, and Erika said she was headed for bed. I tol her to wrap up the brownies so they wouldn’t get hard. Erika rolled her big brown eyes but did what I said. “See?” She made a big deal a rippin off the plastic wrap while I watched.

And that ring was on her finger.

Sometime that night Erika was killed while sleepin in her bed. Just like the other five. When I heard the awful news yesterday I couldn’t believe it. I called the police and tol em I been to Erika’s house that very night. Chief Cotter said to come in and give a statement. He took me in that little interrogation room at the station and questioned me up and down. At the end he said, “You by any chance notice Erika’s diamond ring on her little finger?”

Later that day I talked to Erika’s mama. She also wondered if I seen the ring. Because when the police found Erika’s body, she said, that ring was the only thing missin from the house.

Mayor B said nothin bout bein in Erika’s house that night she was killed. Why should he be? In fact just this mornin the county paper ran a quote from Mayor B, sayin how sad he was that while he and the wife were safe at home, across town another woman was gettin herself killed.

Now here sat Erika’s ring in Mayor B’s desk drawer.

Somethin in my belly started to tremble. I set down the folder and picked up that ring. Looked inside the gold band. There they was—Erika’s great grandmother’s initials: A.K.L.

I dropped the ring back in the folder like it was on fire.

Cherrie Mae, you know you crazy for what you thinkin. You know theys an explanation.

I looked from those awful pictures to the ring.

Trophies? I seen crime shows on TV. I know crazed killers keep such things. And we sure did have ourselves a crazy killer in Amaryllis.

But it ain’t Austin Bradmeyer, Cherrie Mae, come on, girl.

Maybe Mayor B kept those pictures to remind hisself how much he wanted to catch the Closet Killer. Least that’s what he says all the time.

Fine then. What about the ring? The police might a given him a set a those pictures, but they didn’t even know he had that ring.

I heard the Bradmeyer’s front doh open. My body jerked. I threw the picture file back in the hangin folder and slid the drawer shut. Snatched up my dust rag, heart rattlin in my chest.

“I’m back, Cherrie Mae!” Mrs. B called.

“Yes, Ma’am. I’m in the office.” Somehow my voice came out normal. I heard Mrs. B’s footsteps comin and started dustin like my life depended on it.

Fact was, it did.

By the time I got outta that house, my mouth run dry and my knees wobbled. I loaded my car with all my supplies and the stool, and slid inside to rest my head against the steerin wheel. Surely I was as good as dead. Me, a woman livin alone in Amaryllis, and knowin what I did. What was I gon do? I couldn’t keep quiet bout somethin this big. And I couldn’t tell nobody neither.

Because who in town’s gonna believe the likes a five-foot-high Cherrie Mae Devine when she says the mayor’s the one who killed those six women?