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Once Leona Sayres was a good Southern woman married to the town preacher. But from the day Averill buried her newborn baby girl, Leona has seethed in unspeakable loneliness and rage.
She knows there is only one way to ease her pain. Leona must murder that sensuous man of God, her husband, Averill Sayres.
Suddenly Leona has done the unthinkable. And from out of the silent woods around her parsonage, from the dusty Mississippi hills, come the cries and whispers of her past, of the circumstances that brought her to this time and place: a murderer waiting for justice to arrive.
Reliving a life gone terribly wrong, Leona cannot see that she is only one part of a far more complex drama. For all his lies and secrets, Averill Sayres had secrets beyond her guessing. And for all her talk of loyalty, Leona’s own best friend has played a role in Leona’s fate.
Now Leona cannot stop what she herself has set in motion: a chain of events that will unmask an astounding secret, and change a town and its people forever.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000 3:12 p.m.
The state would execute her. She knew that. She accepted it the same way she had accepted the fact that there were too many needlepoint pillows in her living room. Someone would stick a needle in her arm and she’d swoon. Her eyes would roll back into her head and she’d transform from a person into a thing. They’d kill her, but not her meaning. They’d get a full confession, but never a word of remorse. She had so many of her mother’s pretty things around the house. It sickened her to think Audena would clean out the place. Her sister-in-law wouldn’t know what to keep and what to pitch. Audena would probably keep the rag rugs and use Mama’s Aubusson in the doghouse. Well, so what? Without past associations, heirlooms reverted back into things. She slipped two large photographs out of their ornate sterling silver frames: her parents’ wedding in ’49 with Daddy in his Navy uniform, and her brother Henson’s fourteenth birthday at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Those she would keep to the end.
She had to think about her immediate future, what to say, what to hold in silence. What to expect from the police and the legal system. There would be questions, of course, followed by her detailed confession. Then they’d charge her with murder. She’d spend her first night ever in the county jail. A public defender would turn up. There’d be an arraignment. Then she’d have to stand her ground. She’d enter a guilty plea, provided she was allowed to detail not only her crime but also a history of her relationship with her victim.
The world would know and remember everything.
When the deputy knocked, she’d open the door, hand him her overnight bag, and say, “What took you so long?”
Her eyes followed a garland of pastel roses in the carpet to a printed rectangle of lavender paper on the floor at the far end of the sofa. It was this morning’s church bulletin. The front was a rough pencil drawing of a myopic Jesus wearing a crown of thorns — Averill’s crude handiwork. His insistence on demonstrating his complete lack of artistic talent every week only made sense if you accepted the fact that he had never made a lick of sense. As usual, he’d goaded her into lettering the title of his sermon with her calligraphy pen.
Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem?
It was one of his standby sermons. In her year and a half as his wife, she’d already heard it twice. She had always tuned it out as more of his sanctimonious nonsense. However, now, tracing the carefully drawn letters with her finger — right now, listening in the quiet aftermath for the sound of an approaching car — she saw the meaning in the question. Why had the cross-eyed fool ridden that swayback mule into downtown Jerusalem in broad daylight? Why had he placed himself in the eager hands of his executioners? Why hadn’t he turned off that doomed highway and slipped into the anonymous sanctity of life under an alias?
Would millions have considered what he had to say for the next twenty centuries if he had? No. He saw the limited value of his existence next to that.
Leona had no desire to start a religion, but she knew that her willingness to die for the opportunity to tell everything would inflate the value of her every word.
She was half-crazy with running to the front porch every time a green persimmon fell on the roof. She could just picture his amorphous specter floating up the road from the church. That was nothing but guilt. Guilt — that pernicious misery. It liked to give her a sick headache. Except of course she’d already had one longer than she could even remember. She was a first-class mess. One twit of a sparrow’s tail was all it took to convince her that the dead could walk.
Not that she doubted the existence of ghosts. The past — and to her that meant the dead — had ruled her life for several years now. But that was the spirit world; apparitions and images conjured from memory. This all-encompassing terror that she could neither respect nor elude was the impossible idea of dead flesh come back to life.
She kept hearing a nonexistent car on the road.
This wasn’t that saccharine, pseudo-remorse that people used to hide their immoralities. She wasn’t “feeling guilty,” the way people will when they’ve done something they wish they hadn’t. Certainly, she had regrets around it. Killing him was all bother. She would have much preferred some magic ability to undo the things he’d done. However, that wasn’t possible. So, the irksome business had fallen to her. She wasn’t a natural killer. The instinct had been raised out of her. She had pondered her way to the brink of it a thousand times, and then turned gutless or moral, depending on your perspective. She figured she must not have had any perspective left — or she would have never pulled it off.
That was giving the situation a wide berth, though. She didn’t feel any lack of judgment here. She wasn’t suffering any remorse or shame. It seemed very sane and satisfactory to Leona — a good job very well done. So guilt, she was learning this afternoon, had nothing to do with regret. Guilt was contemplation of the inescapable consequences. Guilt was not getting away with it.
The slain might just as well rise up in reanimate flesh armed with immortal powers of retribution.
“The prosecutor will paint me as a woman scorned,” she thought. “He’ll have me out an avenging, bloodthirsty harlot.” He would too. He’d have a Mardi Gras party inventing lurid details. Well, let him. When he was finished, she’d have her say. She’d tell the whole truth in details more lurid and shocking than any lawyer was likely to invent. No, that wouldn’t save her life. She was guilty. The lawful truth was, she had planned and carried out this murder. There was no dancing around that part. Yet it seemed to her as she felt the overpowering peace and loveliness of the April woods that his murder was less crime than result of more egregious follies — all of them her own. Well, what murderer facing justice hadn’t seen it all that way? Did she think she could convince a jury that the devil made her do it?
Then she laughed out loud. The irony was, she had murdered the devil, as far as she was concerned. She felt a sudden kinship with her fellow killers. Killers blinded themselves to their crimes with the motives. How else would so many otherwise moral people become executioners? To the average killer the victim was always the devil. To the rest of the world he was some mother’s darling. She’d do her ultimate cause no good by trying to demonize Averill. Evil didn’t require a tail and a pitchfork. Plain human weaknesses, poor judgment and ordinary selfishness were enough to produce evil.
She had to keep a clear head about that. Her motives and Averill’s unspeakable actions were beside the point. There were far more important things to put down on permanent court record than mitigating circumstances or criminal evidence.
She’d spent so much time in this house, dreading Averill’s footsteps, that she’d developed a warning sense that told her he was approaching even before she heard his truck chug and whine up the hill. She had that feeling just now. She didn’t know if the dead could walk, but Averill’s car was still sitting there on the driveway, so it was plain he hadn’t driven.
“Justice is very little to hold,” she heard her own voice speaking silently. “Too damned little when you consider the price you’ll pay.” All she had to do was wait for sundown, walk up to the church, drag him out back fifty yards into the swamp and let the wet sand swallow him. The notion lit a match. She would pack two suitcases, his and hers. She bent to pull them out from under the bed. Whoever came looking would find the pair of them gone, along with their personal belongings and the car.
She could leave a vague-sounding note for the mailman — she and Averill called away up north for an indefinite period. Averill’s body would sink halfway to hell in that bottomless sand pit before anybody even raised an eyebrow to wonder where they were. Leona could get herself lost in a city.
She saw herself in Seattle, stopping at a quaint little shop to buy fine writing instruments. Leona loved fountain pens. She could amuse herself by the hour drawing and redrawing magnificently looped letters twined with leafy wreaths and ribbons. Now she sat in a shadowy coffee shop redolent of herbs and coffee beans, writing a note on thick velvet notepaper. She would be warm and sincere. She would convey her civil regret like a perfumed countess in one of her mama’s worn Anthony Trollope novels.
She would empathize without irony. She would regret destroying poor Helen’s hopes. She wouldn’t undermine her kindness by suggesting that she had spared Helen the devil’s chains. Helen and Averill had been precariously close to riding off into the sunset. What Leona wanted to convey in the most compassionate possible manner was how she regretted Helen’s pain. In her ideal world, Helen and Averill would have taken their fantastic flight. As far as Leona was concerned, Helen would always be an innocent bystander.
But Leona was attempting to watercolor a stark black-and-white photograph. This wasn’t Seattle. Nor were she and Helen romantic ladies on curling couches in stuffy Victorian novels. Leona’s indifference to Helen’s adultery with Averill didn’t qualify the woman for sainthood. Why did she feel obliged to her? The plain fact was, she didn’t feel anything for or against Helen Brisbane. Everything she knew about the woman had come to her secondhand. For that matter, nothing she had heard about Helen made her seem a very worthwhile person. (A benevolent observation from a murderess.)
No. She had only wanted to draw pretty letters around the jagged ugliness of her savage action. That was a hollow idea, no more real to her than Helen Brisbane, whom she had barely met in a shadowy church at a moment when both women were completely absorbed by other pressing circumstances. Leona had to accept the thing she had done and its meaning for her. She had to swallow it whole. She was no longer a welcome resident of the planet Earth.
Leona had no blood connections left. Averill’s only close relation was his sister. Audena wouldn’t raise her little finger in an effort to find Averill. Her entire concern would be getting her pudgy hands on the contents of the house. The brackish mule would have a snub-nosed truck and trailer backed across that miserable excuse for a yard before you could swat a gnat. Well, let her have it all. All Leona wanted from the mess was Mama’s Lee Ward’s sequined Christmas ornaments and Daddy’s christening dress.
Now she heard familiar shuffling feet and scatter- ing gravel. Oh, dear God, she thought, not today. Leona stepped out to the porch and confirmed her annoyance and dread. A woman wearing a mismatch of ragged clothes and a thick red veil crossed the yard. She was neither apparition nor cause for much immediate alarm. All the same, it aggravated Leona. Was every freak she had ever known going to turn up today? The woman’s name was Darthula. She was the local half-wit, the hill community’s first bag lady, a sign of urbanity to come.
According to Averill you had to cross a quarter of a mile of swamp on foot to get to Darthula’s shack. Leona had seen enough moccasins swimming in that nasty black water. She wasn’t liable to run by for tea anytime soon.
“How you, Miss Leona?”
They had a tacit understanding. Darthula would come no closer than the first porch step. Everyone from here to town knew about Darthula. Yet nobody knew very much about her or how to interpret her strange ways. Her long-dead mother had made and sold moonshine and practiced something like voodoo. Darthula had pronounced herself “a guardian angel.” Her mission in life was to monitor the devil’s movements. She always kept her head covered with bright veils. Red meant the devil was lurking. Blue indicated that he was expected soon, and white meant the coast was clear. Averill laughed in her face. Leona considered it wacky, but she didn’t see where Darthula’s veils were any crazier than half the things Averill preached.
For the most part Darthula was an annoyance. She had stolen food and picked people’s gardens while they were asleep, and nabbed more chickens than a fox. She was lonely and she’d use any excuse to trap you into a conversation.
“What do you want today, Darthula?”
“Seen him in the well house this mornin’.”
Darthula’s ploy was always her urgent and selfless call to warn and inform Leona of Satan’s location. She wanted either food or money. Leona didn’t waste time discerning which. She grabbed several cans off the pantry shelf and gave them to Darthula in a shopping bag. Then she handed her a ten-dollar bill.
“He had a raggledy eye, Miss Lee.”
“I’ll watch my back.”
“You bes’ warn the Reverend.”
“I’ll warn him.”
“Catch a col’ draft on the back of your neck and you’ll be stiff and grinning before you hit the ground.”
Leona let the inside door close in front of her. In a minute she saw Darthula cross the road and move into the cemetery. She never went near the church. And so what if she did? Someone was bound to find Averill. Why not a half-wit? Why did anyone have to find him at all? What made her so sure of all this? Why not give herself time and space to reconsider? If her conclusion was the same, then she could always turn herself in. Wasn’t that better than risking the opposite? Suppose she found herself on death row realizing she had been a fool? It would be too late.
Suddenly she was a frenzy of packing. Averill was easy. All his belongings were neatly arranged in drawers and on shelves and hangers. He was a fanatic about his things. Leona was as clean as a steamer, but neatness wasn’t one of her weaknesses. On her best day she had to dig for the other shoe or the matching glove. Today wasn’t her best. She was nervous as a cat and by the time she had her suitcase so full she had to sit on it to close it, the bedroom looked like a tornado had blown through it.
It took her half an hour to get it straightened up again.
Then she flooded the truck — which wasn’t hard to do. So there she was, under the hood, turning the carburetor screw and spattering her blouse with oil and grease. Now she stood in the shower, scrubbing the petroleum gunk off her hands and arms like an idiot hick version of Lady Macbeth trying to rub off her eternal stains.
Brother, she was cracked now. What difference did it make about the blouse? Why was she sitting here while it ran through a second wash cycle in heavy bleach and detergent? Anyone could turn up here. God knew how many times anyone had. The more she commanded herself to run away, the heavier she sat in the kitchen chair. Now the blouse was in the dryer. She was sipping a cup of tea. At this moment Averill’s body was turning stiff and cold on the floor of his study behind the church sanctuary. Any dog, nut or bum looking for a handout could find him there any second. She had to haul him into the swamp.
She stood on the porch, her knees going weak. There were three vehicles one behind the other on the driveway. She’d move his truck and then his precious Cutlass. She’d take her Blazer. She put the truck on the grass next to the Cutlass. Wait, she thought, I can’t take the Blazer. If she wanted it to look as if she and Averill were away, then she’d have to take the Oldsmobile. She still hadn’t found that christening gown. But wouldn’t people wonder why she’d taken the christening gown if, as she hoped it would appear, she and Averill had left with every intention of returning? Now that was stupid. No one except Averill Sayres had ever seen or heard tell of the christening dress. Now she remembered. She’d wrapped it in tissue and laid it inside of a heavy cardboard dress box that was stored under a pile of wool blankets in the cedar chest.
Or so her deluded mind had convinced her. She had removed the entire contents of the chest by now, and there was no dress box to be seen. Nuts, she was nuts. God alone knew what she’d done with that gown. Some of it, probably most of it, was due to the fact that she hadn’t had a real night’s sleep or a proper meal in God alone knew how long. Some was a result of having lived so long knowing she was bound by fate to murder him. However, the strain that had worked her mind loose was the daily erosion caused by living with what Averill had done.
Well, sir, he might be dead, but his crime continued encroaching on her sanity. She had to think about that too. Suppose she really did manage to dispose of his body and dissolve into thin air? Suppose she even landed on her feet in some ideal situation? What if she was lucky enough to marry a good man and raise his children?
Wouldn’t the past keep eroding her good intentions? Wouldn’t the terrible scenes replay in grim detail? You couldn’t run away from what you’d seen and knew and experienced any more than you could kill it. No, it would all overcome her in the end. She might even snap like one of those maniacs who heard voices and shot people in churches and shopping centers. Though, if that were to become her fate, Leona was pretty sure it would take place in a church.
She had never driven the Cutlass, never ridden in it, for that matter. It still smelled new. Averill had left the paper coverings on the floor mats. The thin, torn plastic still covered the plush fake velvet seats. It gave her an undesired thrill, a cheesy, slick tingle that recalled the inappropriate and unexpected gestures of needy young men. Now it passed. Now she turned the key and a hot tornado stung her face and legs and a deafening chorus of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones began to play. Everything in the goddamned car was automatic. It was button city. Her trembling fingers found the volume control, then the climate, and the already cooler current diminished into a light breeze. It lifted and crackled the film of plastic, stirring a faint, familiar odor from the back of the passenger seat. It was White Shoulders. The Rolling Stones became schmaltzy piano. She adjusted the mirrors until she could see the tallest stones in the cemetery across the road behind her.
Then she turned around and looked, as she always did, just before she backed out of the driveway, fixing her eyes on one small stone by a newer grave. She never knew what awful thing her mind would put there. Sometimes it was the outline of the infant herself, wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes it was her own silhouette, bent and digging at the new grass with her hands. This time it was the stone, sitting there like the ignoble, hard fact of the loss it represented. This was different. This might be better. This might mean the vengeance had resulted in some kind of deep, universal ballast. For a moment her mind and heart drifted hopefully toward the meager possibility of some meaning.
No such kindness, no such hovering angel in the surrounding woods. For it came to her in a flash that Averill had buried Tess in the christening gown. What kind of wonder was that? Averill had twisted her newborn neck until it was lifeless, and then dressed her in all that meticulous cotton and lace. Having nothing else handy, he had used the dress box for her casket. Whether or not Averill had bothered to line it with tissue paper was a question that had held her hostage many sleepless nights.
She shook her mind loose from all that. She raised the shining plastic lever to reverse and slowly pressed the gas pedal. Her gaze took in the dry clay road that sloped down through the woods for a quarter of a mile before it cut back sharply to the left and disappeared. A thin haze of yellow dust told her a car was approaching.
She bolted up the driveway on foot and through the back garden into the sheltering undergrowth at the edge of the woods. She stopped to catch her breath, listening to the air rushing in and out of her heaving chest until it died away. Gradually it was replaced by the hollow echo of tires spitting gravel and the whir of the engine as it made the last, steep grade.
Looking up through the trees, it came to her. The thing was done. There was nowhere to run where the swaying limbs of trees overhead wouldn’t remind her of an empty cradle. There was no gravel road through any remote forest on this earth where she wouldn’t hear her infant girl cry for vengeance like a banshee in the night. There was no reason to draw another breath or take another step or let her tired frame drop down to rest one more night if she didn’t stand beside Averill’s corpse and tell the world about Tess.
That was that, wasn’t it? Then, why did she huddle here, trembling like a hunted doe in the brush? Life was a luxury her soul couldn’t afford if she had any character, if she had any good intention left inside of her, if she had ever been a mother. Fear was an indulgence for people who still had lives to lead. She moved across the garden and beside the house. She headed down the front driveway, intending to stand at the very end when the police car turned into the driveway.
She could see it clearly now, making its approach on the road. It wasn’t the police. It didn’t turn into the driveway. Instead it roared past, disappearing into the dusty cloud in its wake. In another minute, she heard it slow down and veer left into the clay clearing beside the little church. Now a car door slammed, and light, fast feet scrambled over gravel and up three wooden steps. She heard the double doors screech open. She waited, expecting to hear them close. Instead she heard the unmistakable click of high heels on the wood floor of the sanctuary. Now they paused, as if the woman was getting her bearings, maybe adjusting her eyesight to the shadowy interior. Then they resumed, fading until she heard the door at the far end of the sanctuary moan. Then she heard a familiar voice call, “Averill?”
She waited and waited for the scream, but the woman didn’t cry out. After what felt like three forevers, Leona heard a thud, as if a heavy book had fallen off a shelf back in Averill’s study.