This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
An hour later, I had a list of suspects that didn’t like Shelly, a list that didn’t like Jenny, a list that might have a grudge against both of them, and a list of the kids at school that hated everybody and everything. I figured that list was nothing but a dead end, but if I was going to poke around in people’s lives, I might as well be thorough.
I looked at the clock on the cable box, and it read half past five. Too late to find out anything at the school, so I decided to go talk to the one person who wasn’t on either list, but was in both girls’ lies. As much as I hated the idea, I had to go talk to Reverend Turner.
The manse at the First Baptist Church of Lockhart was a modest ranch on a small lot beside the church. I walked up the two steps on the porch and opened the screen door, then knocked twice. I heard Reverend Turner’s wife call out from inside the house, and a few seconds later her blonde head appeared in the little rectangular pane of glass in the front door. She opened the door, a welcoming smile on her face.
“Well, hello, Lila Grace. How are you? What brings you by our place this time of day?”
“Hello, Mrs. Turner,” I replied. “I do apologize for dropping by unannounced, and right here at suppertime, no less. I just need to have a word with Reverend Turner.”
“Aaron? Well, let me just go get him for you. Do you want to come in? I was just putting supper in the stove, so it ain’t gonna be ready to eat for a little while yet, but I could slice up a couple pieces of my lemon meringue pie if you’d like a little something.” Marie Turner was one of those Southern women who thought every problem in the world could be solved with sweet tea and dessert. She was a Peach Queen over in Gaffney before she met the Reverend, who was a serious boy in school and grew up to be a serious man.
Marie was a lively child, and beautiful to boot, but years of small-town life and home visits beside the Reverend had turned her from a slight, active girl into a lively, smiling, round woman who bubbled over with enthusiasm about everything. She was, in short, one of the sweetest, happiest women I’d ever known. I had no idea how she maintained such a positive outlook on life being married to such an awful sourpuss as Aaron Turner.
The sourpuss himself came to the door when he heard my name, that perma-scowl carved into his face like granite. “What are you doing here, Lila Grace?” His tufts of brown hair almost vibrated in his obvious anger at me having violated his sacred private space. Never mind that his sacred private space was paid for by the congregation of his church, and he was paid a salary and some living expenses besides.
Aaron Turner was a rail-thin man, with the grumpy disposition most often found in the painfully thin. I’ve always imagined that going through life being made up of nothing but sharp edges and bony points could make one irritable, but as I’ve been a woman of some substance ever since my breasts came in when I was in middle school, I was spared that pain. He was in his middle forties, about a decade younger than me, but if you were to ask anyone, they would assume him to be older, as his hair was greying almost as rapidly as it was vanishing. His narrow hazel eyes squinted as he looked down on me, and I couldn’t hold back a sigh.
“I need to speak with you, Reverend. Would you like to chat on the porch, or should I come inside?” I asked.
“Outside,” he said. His voice was clipped and curt, but I knew that would be his answer. There was exactly one way that an official Servant of Satan like myself was going to get into his house, and that was in the dead of night creeping through a window. Since those days passed long ago, I stepped over to one of the rockers on his porch and took a seat.
“Should I get a couple glasses of iced tea?” Marie asked, her voice as sweet as a bird.
“No, we’re fine,” her husband snapped. “Go watch the food.” Marie’s face flushed and she fled back inside the house.
“There’s no need to be rude to her just because you don’t like me,” I said, mentally kicking myself for breaking my promise to myself with nearly the first thing I ever said to the man. The whole drive over, I’d been lecturing myself on ignoring his jibes and his little pokes at me and my Christianity and my gift. I’d been telling myself to stay on track, to not get distracted by his stupidity. So of course the first thing I do is get in his business about how he talks to his wife.
He whipped his head around to me, but then he took a deep breath and said, “You’re right. I will make it a point to apologize to Marie when I go inside. But what can I do for you, Lila Grace?”
My mouth fell open. If there had been a fly buzzing by my head just then, It certainly would not have survived the trip. “Excuse me, Reverend?”
“No, excuse me, Lila Grace. I am working to become more inclusive in my thinking and my behavior, and despite the fact that I think you’re either a charlatan or a fraud, and almost certainly bound for Hell once you die regardless of which, there is no cause for me to be as discourteous as I have been in the past.”
I took a second to parse out exactly what he was saying, but after a minute, I was pretty sure I had it unwrapped. “So you’re saying that you think I’m terrible, and I’m stealing people’s money, but you’re gonna stop being an asshole?”
“To put it crudely, yes.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, extending a hand. The clearly uncomfortable minister shook it, and we leaned back to keep rocking. “I need your help, Reverend.”
“I assume this concerns the deaths of poor Jenny and Shelly.”
“You are wondering if there was anyone happening at church that may have led to their untimely passing.”
“You want me to tell you every intimate detail of their private lives, including anything that they may have confided to me in confidence.”
“I ain’t told that man nothing in confidence,” Jenny said, standing right on the far side of the Reverend’s chair. “He’s a jerk.”
“I don’t want you to violate your principles in any way, Reverend, but I do want to remind you that these girls are dead. Nothing you tell me can hurt them, but it might be the key to locking up the man that did them harm.”
He sat there for a long minute, steepling his fingers on his belly like he was thinking, but I could tell all he was really doing was trying to make me sweat. Too bad for him I had lived too long to fall for that garbage. I sat there watching him patiently, not saying a word. If I’ve learned anything about men in my years on this planet, and you can decide for yourself if my lifelong spinsterhood says that I have learned nothing about men or that I have learned far too much about them, it is that they can’t wait out a patient woman. Women go through hours of excruciating pain to bring life into this world. Men participate in a few minutes of the pleasurable part of childbirth. We women are wired for more patience.
“I will share the girls’ confidences with you, but you must not divulge your source unless it is absolutely critical to apprehend the murderer. I cannot under any circumstances have my congregation thinking they can’t trust me,” Turner said, the piety dripping from every syllable.
I mentally counted to ten before I spoke, so I wouldn’t say anything untoward and fracture this new and likely very fragile peace that the good Reverend and I had wrought. “I would never let anybody know that any of my information came from you, Reverend. I will hold your words as close as the confessional.” He looked a little askance at the mention of Catholicism, but I gave him my most grandmotherly smile and he let it slide.
“Now, was there anybody that the girls mentioned to you as being particularly troublesome to them in any way?” I asked, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees.
“Jenny was much less…forthcoming than Shelly. Shelly was such a dear child,” the preacher said, wiping a crocodile tear from the corner of his eye.
“What he meant was that Shelly dressed like a slut when she came to talk to him about stuff, and I didn’t let him look down my shirt,” Jenny said, leaning against the wall to the left of the reverend’s chair.
I developed a sudden coughing fit to cover my laughter, and I grabbed my pocketbook from the floor next to me. I dug around in there, looking for a peppermint to help with my “coughing” and to hide my face from the preacher. I swear if I had looked at him right them I probably would have laughed so hard I spit a mint right in his eye.
“Are you okay, Lila Grace? Let me get Marie to fetch you a glass of tea.” He got up and stuck his head in the kitchen door. His voice was muffled by my coughing and the door, but he came back with a glass of tea in a few seconds. Marie probably just grabbed one of the tea glasses set up for their supper, poor woman.
“Thank you,” I said, taking a long drink. She made good tea. It obviously wasn’t instant, that was good, and it had the right amount of sugar in it. Sweet, but not so much that it makes your teeth hurt. I smiled at Reverend Turner and motioned for him to proceed.
“Well, like I said, Shelly was more open that Jenny, but there were a few names that popped up whenever both girls talked about school.”
“Who were they, Reverend?” I asked.
The reverend rattled off half a dozen names, all of them already on my legal pad. I dutifully wrote them down on a clean sheet of paper, just in case the source somehow became important later.
“Was there anybody at church, Reverend Turner?” I asked after he named all the names he could think of from school. I knew I had to go gentle with this, because Turner was way more likely to be protective of his own “flock” than of some child from school he didn’t know.
“There was an incident last summer on a youth group trip, but I don’t believe it was anything serious.” He looked uncomfortable, like he didn’t really want to talk about it, which made me think it certainly fell into the category of “things Lila Grace wants to know.” I was also intrigued because it happened a year ago, was a big enough deal that the preacher remembered it, and Jenny hadn’t mentioned it to me before.
“Why don’t you just tell me about it, Reverend? If it turns out to be nothing, then at least we know.” I said. I took a huge chance and leaned forward, patting him on the knee. He didn’t burst into flame, something I’m sure came as a huge surprise to him. He also didn’t leap to his feet shouting “Sinner!” which surprised me no small amount.
He looked around the room, as if to make sure we were alone. “I heard from one of the chaperones that he caught the girls in one of the boys’ rooms after they were all supposed to be in bed for the night, and there was beer involved. It was even said that…one of the girls may have been topless!” His eyes got big, and I bit down on the inside of my cheek real hard to keep from laughing in his face.
Imagine that, a bunch of teenagers go to the beach and they find some way to get beer. Horror of horrors, one or more of them even ends up naked! I guess if there was sex involved, and somebody got jealous, that could cause a problem. Or if somebody got pregnant… I sighed and turned my attention back to Turner, who sat on the edge of his seat with the prurient anticipation of someone who got to do their favorite thing in the world – tattle.
“Thank you, Reverend. That could be very important. Do you have a list of the children on the trip?”