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Beautiful, Dirty, Rich
By J.D. Mason
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 J. D. Mason
All rights reserved.
Mary Travis had sold her soul, but by the time she'd repented for it, it was already too late. She'd taken the money.
The girl is young, she'd told herself back then. She's strong, and she'll have plenty of time to build a life for herself and to start over again in twenty-five years. God takes care of fools and children. Surely, that girl is no exception. But Mary had still taken the money.
Not a day went by that she wasn't tormented by the fear that she'd seen in that child's eyes.
"Momma? Momma!" The sound of her crying and calling out to her mother that day in that courtroom tortured Mary to this day, and broke her heart all over again. And even now, as she lay on the floor of her parlor feeling her life slowly begin to slip away from her, knowing that she was about to come face-to-face with God or the devil, Mary's thoughts were not on herself, but on that girl.
God washed away sins, and he forgave the sinner, but not all sins, and not all sinners. Her face would be the last one Mary ever saw, but of course, the image of the girl had always been lurking in the shadows of Mary's mind, waiting patiently for a fair and equitable retribution.
Mary tasted blood in her mouth. Her throat had closed up until it was impossible to breathe or to cry out. Panic flooded her mind and body as she lay motionless on the floral rug in her small parlor room, staring at the wheels of her wheelchair that had rolled to the other side of the room. A warm, thick liquid pooled around her cheek. Mary blinked; it was the only movement she could make. A tear streamed down the side of her face, as she heard crying coming from someplace else in that room.
She desperately needed to take a breath. Mary's heart beat feverishly, echoing in her ears until it was almost deafening. For years she'd waited to die. For years, life had tortured her, bringing her half a breath short of death, only to allow her one more miserable day to suffer in her guilt. She should've been afraid, but she wasn't. This time, she wouldn't pull through. This time, there wouldn't be any miracles. She was done.
She had known all along that she deserved to be punished for the part she'd played in this. Jesus! Forgive me! she pleaded in her mind.
But you took the money, Mary, a haunting voice answered her. You still took the money.
As the other woman stepped over Mary, the sound of sobbing stabbed Mary's heart, causing it to break even more.
Don't you cry for me! she wanted to shout. Don't you dare!
Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.
— AESOPCHAPTER 2
A Girl and a Dream
"Desi Green's story really is stranger than fiction, Jeremy," Sue Parker explained walking alongside her editor, Jeremy Kennedy, through the lunchtime-crowded streets of Midtown Manhattan. "And it would make a great read."
"It's okay," he said dismissively, "but there are other stories, more recent stories that people actually remember, Sue." She'd been trying to talk him into letting her write this story for months, and he'd stonewalled her. "You're talking about a murder that took place nearly thirty years ago. No one cares."
He was right, of course. Sue Parker made her living writing books about the lives and times of ax murderers, child killers, and flesh-and-blood grim reapers, all of whom had committed their crimes years after Desi Green was sentenced for murdering a millionaire. Sue was known for telling the gruesome truth in her books, the no-holds-barred details of murder straight from the psycho's mouth. Desi's story, by comparison to what she was used to writing, was tame. But her motivation for wanting to write it was coming from another place.
"Okay, so she shot her mother's lover and went to prison for it. No big deal, I know."
"Then stop trying to pitch it to me if you know. It's dull."
"I don't think it is, Jeremy," she argued. "And I don't want to write about the murder. I want to write about her."
"Let me say this slowly." He stopped, took hold of her by the shoulders, and turned her to face him. "Nobody cares."
"Women would care," she shot back quickly. "The number of women in prison has grown by over eight hundred percent in the past three decades. That's almost twice the number of men, Jeremy."
"Then find a woman serial killer to write about," he said indifferently.
"Have you ever seen her?"
He let her go and started walking back to his office. "Not lately."
"She was little more than a kid when they sent her to prison, Jeremy. And not much older than your daughter."
He cut his eyes at her, and quickened his pace. "My daughter hasn't shot anybody lately, Sue. I think you can stop trying to woo me with Desi Green by comparing the two."
"She grew up in prison," she continued, doubling her steps to keep pace with him. "What was that like? What did growing up in a place like that do to her, and what kind of woman is she now?"
"It's touching. Real tug-at-the-old-heartstrings kind of touching, Sue, but uninteresting."
"While she was in prison, her mother died. Can you imagine what it must've been like for her to come home knowing that the woman she loved more than anything was no longer part of this world?"
"You've got half a block to convince me that this conversation is worth my time," he said curtly. "And so far, you're failing miserably."
"Has she ever had a date? Kissed a guy? Made love to one? She's in her forties now. How does she feel about the possibility of never having children?"
"Pity," he said irritably. "My answer is still no."
"Twenty million dollars, Jeremy." She stopped walking.
He stopped too, and slowly turned to her.
"Desi Green, ex-con, felon, murderer, is worth twenty million dollars."
He tilted his head curiously to one side. "How'd that happen?" She smiled, and folded her arms across her chest. "If you'd been paying attention, you'd know."
She could see the wheels start to spin behind his eyes. "Gatewood money?"
Sue nodded. "By way of momma bear. The woman was loaded, courtesy of that beautiful, dirty, rich bastard, Julian Gatewood. She never spent a dime of that money. And when she died, it all went to Desi."
He took a step toward her. "Am I correct in assuming that the Gatewoods are pretty pissed about it?"
"Uber pissed. They hate her now more than ever."
He nodded introspectively. "Hate. That's good. Hate and millions of dollars and a dead man, that's even better."
"It's downright scandalous," she said, smugly.
"It's the layers I want to peel back, Jeremy," she explained. "On the surface, there's nothing here that anyone cares about. But I have a feeling," she pressed her hand to her stomach, "here. And you know how right on the money my gut instinct can be."
He thought before finally responding. "I'll have to try and get it past Mark."
Mark was the publisher.
"Can you write me a riveting pitch?"
She reached into her purse and pulled out a large manila envelope. "I thought about mailing it, but thought you'd be more impressed if I hand delivered it, myself."
A spark twinkled in his brown eyes. "I am."
"This story's got it all, Jeremy. Drama, loss of innocence, heartache, money, and if my gut instinct is any indication, there's a really good mystery here too."
"I'll see what I can do," he said, turning to leave.
Sue took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. This book would be different from anything else she'd ever written. In the past, Sue had basically been a reporter. She investigated, interviewed, and simply typed down what she was told. She'd always kept herself emotionally detached from the beasts she'd interviewed. After all, what in the world could she possibly have in common with serial killers? But there was something about Desi Green that intrigued her. Desi was everywoman, whose life had changed on a dime. Before that night, there was nothing extraordinary about that teenage girl. She had never been in trouble at school or with the police. The old news footage she'd seen of Desi during the trial struck a chord with Sue. Desi's innocent face, the terror and confusion in her eyes had captivated her. Sue had read through the trial transcripts half a dozen times, and never did anyone mention motive.
If a girl's gonna shoot a guy ... of course, she's got to have a reason. Desi had never gone on record to say what her reason could've been, and no one, it seemed, had ever bothered to ask.CHAPTER 3
The porch still creaked. When Desi Green had moved out of this old place, she hadn't even bothered to lock the door because she knew that nobody was crazy enough to go inside. Desi pushed open the front door and stepped inside to the small living room. The musty smell was overwhelming, blanketing her in the past.
Not all of her memories of this place were bad, though. Desi had found that if she stood still long enough, sometimes one of the good ones would come into focus and almost make her smile. This time was no exception. Desi closed the door behind her, stood there, and waited as the haunting crescendo of James Brown began to rise up in the corner of the living room where that old record player used to be.
Across the room the sofa came into view, and Desi saw the image of her mother begin to take shape, as Ida Green laughed and clapped, light twinkled in her eyes. Finally, she saw him, Mr. J, Julian Gatewood, twirling around the room in an expensive gray suit, crisp white shirt, and navy blue-and-gold-striped tie, dancing the boogaloo, as he called it. Finally, she saw herself, the little girl Desi, spinning around him like a top, doing her own rendition of a dance that she could never do as well as he.
"You got it." He laughed. "That's it, Desi! You boogalooing, girl!"
And she was.
He was tall and handsome, and expensive looking, with golden hair and blue eyes. He looked like a white man to Desi. She'd even told him that once to his face. He got mad, but the only reason she knew he was mad was because he turned red in the face, just like white people did, but he never raised his voice to her.
"I'm as black as you, little girl," he said.
"But you got eyes like white people and hair like 'em too."
"Desdimona!" her mother yelled from the kitchen. "What'd I tell you 'bout bein' so mannish?"
Mr. J put his hand up to let Ida know that he could handle an eight-year-old just fine without her help.
"Black people in this country come in all shades and shapes and sizes, Desi," he explained. "One drop." He held up one long finger to make his point. "That's all it takes. One drop of black blood makes a person black, and I promise you," he chuckled, "I've got a whole lot more in me than just a drop coursing through my veins."
She'd always called him Mr. J, and it wasn't until the trial that she learned his real name. It wasn't until the trial that she learned he had another family, a wife, kids. That's when she found out that he didn't belong to Desi and her mother, Ida. The two of them had only borrowed him.
James Brown's screams turned into her own. Desi wasn't a little girl anymore. She had just turned eighteen. The pop! pop! sound of a gun being fired filled the room. Desi watched in fascination and horror as Mr. J stopped dancing the boogaloo, stared at her with wide and unbelieving eyes, put his hand to his chest, and dropped slowly to his knees onto the floor. Blood seeped through his white shirt and fingers. No more boogalooing. No more dancing. No more happy memories.
Twenty-six years had passed since that night. And in all those years, Desi had learned two things, that obsession was a bitch and money was everything. She'd come to see and to know the power of both firsthand because she'd spent the last twenty-six years of her life smothered by them.
He wasn't the only one who had died in this house. Years later, while Desi wasted away in prison, her mother, Ida Fay Green, died here too. And even if you didn't believe in ghosts, it was hard not to see them in this place. After her release, Desi had no place else to go but here. And what was left of Mr. J and her mother haunted her every single moment that she stayed.
Her mother's room was empty now but she remembered it exactly as it had been before they took her away in handcuffs. The bed was always perfectly made, covered in a pastel yellow bedspread and laced pillows. Ida loved to smell good and rows of half-empty bottles of perfume lined the top of her dresser, along with tubes of lipstick and powder.
"We regret to inform you that your mother passed away of a heart attack, Miss Green," the warden had told her. Desi was twenty years into her prison sentence. The Warden waited for Desi's reaction. Desi blinked, and forced herself to remember how to breathe. Her mother's face came into view in her mind, but it didn't last. Ida had been her anchor to the world outside prison and the Warden had just told her that her anchor was gone. Desi had no words. No tears. She didn't have anything anymore.
She picked up a dusty photograph lying on the floor of twelve-year-old Desi and Ida. Desi blew off the dust, and smiled. Growing up, she never thought she looked like her mother, but now it was hard to miss the resemblance. Desi was as tall as Ida, or as short, depending on your perspective. Ida was a petite woman, five-two, five-three, with full curves, soft brown eyes, a warm smile, and thick black hair that most people believed was a wig. Ida had been that unassuming kind of pretty that could easily be overlooked if you didn't pay attention.
Desi had sold this house for next to nothing to a young couple from out of town who weren't afraid of ghosts. It had taken everything in her to finally let it go, but if she was going to move on with her life, then selling the house was a good place to start.
* * *
Blink, Texas was a small enough town that he couldn't help but drive past this old place from time to time. Ida Green's house had been shut up tight until her daughter, Desi, moved back in. But she had moved out of it as soon as she had gotten all of that money, and slapped a FOR SALEsign up in the front yard before the ink had dried on that check. Of course, nobody who knew the history wanted anything to do with the place, so it wasn't surprising when some folks from out of town snatched it up for almost free.
He'd heard gossip that she was back. Desi Green had pulled into town driving one of those fancy European convertible sports cars like she was a movie star or something. But unlike everyone else in town, Tom Billings was just curious. That's all. Curious to see how money could change a convicted felon into whatever she was now. The two of them had a history that went beyond both of them being born and raised in Blink, Texas. He'd never mistreated her, though, despite what she might've thought at the time. He had been firm, but never abusive. Ultimately, everything had worked out for that girl in the end. In a strange way it had worked out for her better than it had for anybody else.
"Desi." He stood in the front yard and greeted her as she was coming out of the house.
She'd just closed the door and stood on the porch, staring down at him. Tom didn't like that.
"Heard you were in town." He smiled.
She looked good. Real good. She looked rich and nearly brand new. Desi Green had a few years on her now the same way they all did, but she didn't look the same way she had when she first moved back here. Standing there in some of those skinny jeans that all the women wore nowadays, and high heels, wearing fancy sunglasses, she did look like she ought to live in Hollywood. Her long, pretty hair, thick and glossy black hung loose and straight, past her shoulders. She looked so much like Ida, only fancier.
"Sheriff Billings." She crossed her arms and curled her lips at the corners, making it clear that she wasn't happy to see him.
He chuckled. "Nobody's called me sheriff in years, Desi. I'm retired now." He waited for her to respond, but she didn't. She just looked at him.
"Sold the house, I see." He motioned his head toward the obvious SOLD sticker across the front of the sign.
She shifted her weight from one expensive shoe to the other. Gone was that shy and awkward teenager, so full of tears and fear. And gone was that insecure and confused woman fresh out of the pen. Tom had been a cop for forty years and he prided himself on his prowess for observation. He'd always been good at reading people. That Desi Green, the younger one, the poorer one, was the one he liked. This one — he didn't know what to make of.
"Is there something I can do for you?"
Her tone threw him off balance. Tom was sensitive to the tone of voice people took when they spoke to him. He shook it off this time.
Life hadn't been fair to that girl when she was younger. Obviously, he thought, looking her up and down, it had taken a turn for the better. "You doing alright?" he asked. "You happy now?" He waited for an answer but didn't get one. "The Lord worked things out in your favor. From dead last to first place." He laughed. "I'd call that a blessing."
Excerpted from Beautiful, Dirty, Rich by J.D. Mason. Copyright © 2012 J. D. Mason. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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