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By FELICIA MASON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Felicia L. Mason
All rights reserved.
The thing that vexed people the most about the death of Ana Mae Futrell wasn't the secrets she took to the grave with her, but the ones that would come to light after she died.
And the thing that stunned people the most about Ana Mae's passing on to glory wasn't the fact that she'd dropped dead of a burst aneurysm while cleaning Doc Hardison's toilet. What everybody wanted to know was, who the hell was Howard?
Ana Mae's obituary in the Ahoskie Times & Union Report said she had a son. But nobody had ever heard of him. And even fewer people than that believed that Ana Mae had ever lifted the hem of her holiness dress long enough to get knocked up.
Then there was the business about the "life partner." None of Ana Mae's kin still lived in town. They'd all high-tailed it out of Hertford County as soon as they could legally get away—and at least one of them before even that. The baby in the family, Ana Mae's brother, Clayton, was a homosexual. Of course, some folks, the ones who remembered when all the Futrells lived in the little house over on Clairmont where they grew up and that Ana Mae still called home, already knew that. That Clayton was kind of sissy-acting as a boy. But lots of people also carried a quite a bit of latent curiosity about him. Nobody had ever listed a "life partner" as a survivor in the local newspaper. To be honest, most folks were surprised they even let that sort of thing in a family publication.
Needless to say, Ana Mae's wake and funeral promised to be a spectacle—if for no other reason than plain curiosity.
So for the better part of two hours, people from all over the county had been trudging into the Rollings Funeral Home on Maple Avenue in Ahoskie, the "big" town next to Drapersville, to pay their respects to the late Ana Mae Futrell. The family would arrive any minute now.
* * *
Ana Mae's kin offered some much-needed entertainment in the town. While many who showed up at the wake wondered about Ana Mae's brother, the homosexual who lived in San Francisco and had the nerve to put it in the newspaper so everybody would know, just as many others wanted to know whatever happened to the two sisters. Nobody had seen skin or teeth of either of them for nigh on about twenty years, though Ana Mae always talked about them like they just ran out to get a pack of cigarettes or some milk from the Day-Ree Mart.
And as at wakes all over the place, some people just wanted to see who all else was there.
Ana Mae was so good at keeping secrets, not even her best friend knew about that Howard thing.
Though she was one of the biggest gossips in town, Rosalee Jenkins prided herself on being able to keep a secret when it mattered. It hurt her that Ana Mae hadn't confided in her about this son of hers. So at Ana Mae's wake, Rosalee stood near the casket and fussed at her friend.
"I'm mad at you for dying, Ana Mae. And I'm mad at you for not telling me about that boy."
"She can't hear you, you know, Sister Rosalee."
The gentle words came from the Reverend Toussaint le Baptiste. He stood tall, slim, and as good-looking as he had been back when they were young and before he'd found the Lord. Many a time, Reverend Toussaint, as most people called him these days, had been asked if he was related to the singers El DeBarge or Christopher Williams. He had the lighter than café au lait skin, the wavy "good" hair, and a slim moustache that added a dashing Errol Flynn touch to features that women gravitated to like honey.
"I know, Too Sweet. I just miss her so much."
"Ana Mae is wearing a crown and walking the streets of gold right now."
The minister pulled a tissue from a box discreetly tucked at the side of the coffin. Pressing it into her hand, he said, "I miss her too, Sister Rosalee. I miss her too."
* * *
Across the room, a small group huddled, surveying the survivors. "Ana Mae never had no kids," someone whispered loudly.
"Shoot, far as I know she was so holy she never spread her legs for anybody."
The person who said that blanched when the comment earned her an evil-eyed look from Zenobia Bryant. "Y'all ought to respect the dead," Zenobia hissed. She glanced around trying to make sure none of Ana Mae's immediate family had heard the nasty remark.
Truth was, though, townsfolk in Drapersville and Ahoskie, North Carolina, weren't the only ones asking who the hell Howard was. Ana Mae's family wanted to know too.
JoJo, a former showgirl in Las Vegas, stood near the door waiting for a cue from the funeral parlor staff. Her husband, Lester, glanced over his shoulder at his brothers-in-law getting out of the car.
"I was expecting your brother's, uh, er, well, his boyfriend ..."
"His life partner," JoJo said, as if explaining— again—to a none-too-bright child.
Lester snorted. "Yeah, his partner. I expected him to be more faggy. But he's like a regular guy. Even played some football in college."
JoJo narrowed her eyes at her husband. "You can be so vile."
He raised an eyebrow. "What?" he asked, as she stomped away. "What'd I say? I was giving the man a compliment. For a homo he's not all that bad."
"Don't know what she's all in a huff about," Lester muttered as he patted his breast pocket for his smokes. He might have time for one before they had to go inside. "She told me to be nice to her relatives."
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Reverend Toussaint le Baptiste cleared his throat at the lectern—for the third time. No one in the funeral chapel paid him any mind.
"Our Father, who art in heaven," he yelled above the din of the mourners come to pay respects to the Futrell family.
By the time he got to "Thy kingdom come ...," the place had quieted down, and others intoned the old and sacred prayer with him. After the Amen, the minister clasped his hands around his Bible.
"On behalf of the Futrell family, I want to thank you all for coming out tonight. Sister Ana Mae was a faithful member of the church, and she truly loved her some God."
Heads bobbed in agreement. In the back, near a display of mums and gardenias nearly as tall as he was, Lester muttered to JoJo.
"That's the preacher? What they got in the water down here? Would you look at that? Wrist just as limp as your brother's."
JoJo poked him in the ribs with her elbow.
"Shh," several people said, turning to glare in his direction.
"Can't you just hush up for half an hour?"
Blood rushed to Lester's neck. "I don't see why we have to do this. Why we even had to come out here. You didn't even like Annie Mae."
"Her name is Ana Mae. And just because we weren't close didn't mean I didn't love my sister. And, Mr. High Roller, I didn't ask you to come here with me."
With a scowl toward the back of the room, an indication that JoJo and Lester's hushed conversation wasn't so shushed, Reverend Toussaint extended his hand toward Delcine.
"Sister Marguerite Futrell—some of you all might remember her as Delcine—is going to say a few words."
Lester rolled his eyes. "Ah, now, here we go. Queen Delcine."
JoJo, with her big teased hair, long false eyelashes, and too-tight, sequined red dress, cussed under her breath, then inched away from her husband.
"Excuse me," she said to a man wearing a camouflage green hunter's jacket. She needed to put some distance between her and Lester before they got into a fight right here in the funeral home.
She paused next to her brother-in-law, Delcine's husband, who silently switched places with her. Clayton took her hand in his and squeezed it.
JoJo offered her brother a thankful smile, then turned her attention to their sister.
Dressed in a royal blue fitted suit that looked like it was tailored just for her and that probably cost more than the trailer that JoJo and Lester lived in, Delcine went to the center of the room, where she could address the crowd of about eighty or so mourners who had ventured out to come to the wake.
"My sister, brother, and I thank you for coming tonight. We know you loved Ana Mae very much. Her passing will leave a void in many hearts."
"Spoken like a true diplomat," JoJo said out of the side of her mouth.
Clayton Futrell smirked. "At least we all showed up. I doubt Ana Mae even expected that."
Delcine cut a glance at her siblings, her eyes narrowed and her lips curved up in her familiar smilesnarl.
Both JoJo and Clayton recognized it as a clear sign that their murmuring was reaching her ears. Flushing, they both looked down at the floor. While JoJo was genuinely contrite, she doubted if Clayton was. He'd never minced words on his feelings about either their hometown or the sister he didn't really know. There were a lot of years separating them. Clayton had always had a closer relationship with JoJo, who was just eighteen months older.
Clayton was gorgeous. He'd gotten the best of the family's genes, and JoJo was proud of all he'd accomplished. From the subtle whiff of an expensive aftershave to the custom suit, he exuded the wealth and the privilege that came of being a successful doctor out in California.
Delcine lived with her family in upper-middleclass suburban luxury outside Washington, D.C. She and her husband both had important and high-ranking government jobs that afforded them a lifestyle JoJo envied only when she was feeling sorry for herself. And that was even though it was never quite made clear just what it was that Winslow—or Delcine, for that matter—did for a living. As far as JoJo was able to determine, Winslow had something to do with government contracts, and Delcine worked as the director or assistant director in some kind of government office.
JoJo was a Futrell who, like Ana Mae, hadn't made much of her life. Yeah, she lived in Las Vegas and used to be a sought-after dancer in the top shows on the Strip, but that was fifty or sixty pounds ago and before she'd hooked up with Lester. He'd promised her the world, and he'd given her a trailer park and a pack-aday cigarette habit. She'd kicked the cigarettes to the curb. Now if she could just do the same to Lester.
Too many times now she'd heard tourists exclaim that she looked like a black Peggy Bundy. She couldn't help thinking that that had once seemed like a compliment, but that now, compared to her living-high-onthe-hog and well-put-together siblings, she looked like what she was: trailer trash.
* * *
Years as both a bureaucrat and a Beltway wife had taught Marguerite Delcine Futrell Foster how to sound sincere without meaning a word of what she said.
In a way, she was sorry that Ana Mae had died. But part of her was glad. Her last tie to this dismal little town was finally severed and she was freed from the past. Of course, her present didn't rank as anything to be proud of—or to write home about, even if she'd wanted to.
Ana Mae had always been mean to her, as far as Marguerite was concerned. She steadfastly ignored the fact that had it not been for her older sister's little white envelopes arriving a few times every semester, she'd have never made it through college.
But that was neither here nor there now. Water under the bridge. Ancient history. Buried, just like Ana Mae would be before long.
"The services will be here," Marguerite said. "Tomorrow, at eleven."
The preacher cleared his throat.
"Uh, pardon me, Sister Futrell."
"Foster," Marguerite corrected.
He bobbed his head, pulled out a handkerchief, and dabbed his forehead. "Sister Foster. The funeral tomorrow will be at the church. Sister Ana Mae wanted a church funeral."
Marguerite bit back rising panic. She glanced at her brother and sister. Clayton was eyeing a young man across the room. JoJo gave her a "don't even think about it" look.
Marguerite gestured for the undertaker. Mr. Rollings glided toward the front of the parlor and sidled next to Marguerite.
She gestured for him to lean down so she could consult with him privately.
"We will not pay for limousine and hearse services to cart that casket all over town."
Rollings opened his mouth, apparently thought better of whatever he was about to say, then bowed his head ever so slightly.
"Transportation is included in the cost of our services, Mrs. Foster."
Marguerite brightened. "Oh, well, in that case." She looked back out at the crowd and a little too cheerfully announced, "Tomorrow morning at eleven at ...," she looked at Reverend Toussaint le Baptiste.
"At the Holy Ghost Church of the Good Redeemer," he said. "I think everybody knows where it is."
As restrained and respectful chatter again filled the viewing parlor, Rollings put a hand on Marguerite's elbow, guiding her away from the casket.
"I need to speak with the members of the family," he said. "We can meet in my office. It's about some of Miss Futrell's final wishes."
Delcine's gaze darted to her husband's. She jerked her head for him to join her.
Rollings held out a hand toward JoJo and Clayton, indicating he'd like them to join him as well.
"I'll just wait for you here," said a man standing just behind Clayton.
Like Clayton, he looked ready to be photographed for the cover of a magazine. The dark-blue striped suit, crisp white shirt, wing tips, and cuff links pegged him as a man who paid attention to detail. The clothes, the ice-blue eyes, and his blond hair, slicked back and effortless in its salon perfection, gave him the look of one of those rich white men in Ralph Lauren ads.
"No," Clayton said, reaching for the man's hand. Then, as if remembering where he was, he instead tucked his hand in the pocket of his trousers. "You're my family. I want you to hear whatever it is he has to say."
Marguerite's husband, Winslow Foster, the man of few words, fell into step behind her.
Lester and JoJo Coston followed him.
"This better not be about paying some more money to bury that broad," Lester grumbled.
"You have that right, Lester," Winslow muttered.
Almost simultaneously, JoJo hissed "shut up" to Lester, and on a long-suffering sigh, Marguerite, said, "Winslow, please."
As the family made its way to the undertaker's office, a man in paint-spattered brown pants and a plaid shirt buttoned the wrong way accidentally bumped against Winslow going the other way.
"Sorry 'bout that, bro," the man mumbled, tipping the brim of his rumpled brown hat. "Just coming to pay my respects. Ana Mae helped me find a place to stay."
Winslow didn't say anything, but he brushed at the sleeve of his Brooks Brothers suit jacket.
"Ain't you Mr. Dandy," Lester muttered. "Dude said he was sorry."
If Winslow heard the comment, he gave no indication of it.
Delcine—she'd given up on being called Marguerite while in North Carolina—looked around in distaste as they followed the undertaker.
"What doesn't at all seem likely is that Ana Mae would leave a will or have any final wishes. What in the world could she possibly have?"
"That anyone else would want," her husband Winslow added.
Once the Futrell siblings and their significant others were gathered in the spacious, panel-lined office, JoJo spoke first.
"Mr. Rollings, we had the understanding that all of Ana Mae's funeral and burial expenses were prepaid, you know, in advance."
The undertaker nodded as he indicated for them all to sit.
The office was appointed in rich, coffee-colored leathers, and curiously, Marguerite noted, it smelled of cinnamon. Like somebody was baking something good. But in a funeral home?
She looked around for a source and saw an original oil by a noted African-American artist. The piece she and Winslow commissioned four years ago by the same artist, a 36x24 painting of a black Madonna, had been one of the first things to go.
When she noticed Winslow also studying the painting, she closed her eyes for a moment.
"We'd prefer to stand," she said, responding to Rollings's invitation. "Why did you need to see us? Is it about some additional ..."
"And probably jacked up ... ," Lester chimed in.
"... expense for your services?" Marguerite finished with a sharp glance in her brother-in-law's direction.
When none of the Futrells opted to sit, Everett Rollings went behind his desk and picked up a piece of paper.
"No, rest assured," he said. "There are no additional expenses for Miss Futrell. Everything has been provided for."
"Well, thank God for that," Lester said.
Winslow, as well, looked relieved.
Marguerite wanted to say "Ditto that," the way her son did when he agreed with a point in a family debate. Instead, she folded her arms. "Lester, please. I'm sure Mr. Rollings is going to get to his point."
Archer smiled. He leaned over toward Clayton and whispered, "You didn't tell me your sister had silk claws."
The edges of Clayton's mouth quirked up, but he didn't say anything.
"Well," JoJo prompted, waving her hand in a forward motion.
"It's the matter of the will," the undertaker said.
Clayton glanced at Archer, then said, "Is that it? Just one sheet of paper?"
Everett Rollings looked down at the paper. "This, no. This is just a reminder about the reading of the will. It will be held at least two days after Ana Mae's funeral. She requested that all of you"—he paused and glanced at the spouses, first Archer, then Winslow, then Lester—"and that includes you," he told the three men, "remain in the Ahoskie/Drapersville area. The reading will take place here, in my office."
JoJo shuddered. "In a funeral home? That's kind of creepy. Isn't there supposed to be a lawyer or something?"
Excerpted from Hidden Riches by FELICIA MASON. Copyright © 2014 Felicia L. Mason. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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