When reclusive, retired silver screen actress Barbara Lace dies in her bed, only the young widower of Cedarville suspects a crime. But Samson Delaware has always been something of an outsider, and his wife’s death hasn’t exactly improved his reputation. In fact, the local gossipmongers think he might be losing his mind. Their bless-your-heart manners can’t disguise their distrust, which makes his amateur attempts at an investigation even more difficult.
When Lace’s assistant is found decidedly murdered, the town starts to change its tune, though, and soon Samson finds himself in the thick of an improbable chase. Hollywood hotshots and small-town law enforcement make strange bedfellowsespecially when secrets are getting women killed.
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Visit her online at www.ericawright.org or @eawright.
Read an Excerpt
INT. HOTEL BALLROOM - NIGHT
Well-heeled ladies and gentlemen waltz to "Love's Own Sweet Song."
ABIGAIL, an uninvited guest, pulls a silver pistol from her satin handbag.
CLIVE, a former bigwig who bet on the wrong horse, grabs her arm.
CLIVE If you're going to kill me, I recommend a quiet corner. A deserted balcony, maybe, where I can plead with the moon for mercy.
ABIGAIL The moon's not much on mercy these days. You go ask.
CLIVE Best wait 'til morning then. See what the sun has to say about all of this.
ABIGAIL You need guts for that sort of mission. I left mine back home.
CLIVE At least tell me you didn't leave your name there, too. You got a name, don't you?
from Midnight Millionaire (1939) Written by Bucky Carruthers and Hope Lancaster Directed by Jonathan S. Ferguson
* * *
Samson got the call because he skipped church most Sundays, not because he had any experience with removing a body. Still, when the Meeker brothers asked for a favor, you found your coat. He let his old pickup warm for ten minutes before putting it into gear, so he was the last to arrive on the hill. The other men watched him approach, their expressions hard to read. The town had gotten used to him over the years, but he was nobody's first choice.
"She still inside then?" Samson asked, stretching his long legs to the gravel driveway. He left the keys in the ignition and slammed the door shut behind him. The locks had stopped working years ago, but the truck wasn't worth stealing, more rust than even scrap metal these days.
Grunts greeted him in response, and only Cully Barnes shook his hand. Samson hoped the four of them would be enough. Cully was built like a steam engine, but going on seventy, his gray hair meeting his beard in a sort of dog fight. Jamie Meeker and his younger brother Leejon were stick-thin and already buzzed at 10 a.m. Must be nice, Samson thought, stomping his boots against the frozen ground. A deep breath burned as the cold air slipped into his lungs. Samson hadn't touched a drop of alcohol since he got married, more than ten years back now.
The group turned toward the house, clambering up the rotting steps. The place used to be a showstopper, or so all the locals said. Samson had never seen inside, and part of him thrilled at the prospect despite their grim task. He'd gotten into antiques as a hobby, but now it seemed more like a calling. He placed his hand on a pillar as he passed, noting the strong oak, sturdy despite the termite damage. Yes, it had good bones, and Samson wondered who would inherit the three-story Victorian.
The front door wouldn't budge, but Leejon found a cracked window and pushed it up far enough to squeeze through and then let everyone else in. They moved quickly, glad to be out of the cold. A staircase greeted them, six feet wide and ascending to a large pane of stained glass, pale winter light making the dust shimmer and dance. The place felt like it hadn't been disturbed in years, that they were trespassing on holy ground, but Samson knew he was just being superstitious. He'd gotten that way lately. They had a job to do, and they would get through it.
"Damn shame," Cully said, and Samson pulled his attention to the sitting room, which was packed with newspapers and magazines, the kind of hazard you hate to see anywhere, but especially in a town with a volunteer fire department that got called mainly for drunk teenagers taking a curve too fast on Sable Road up near the high school. Good men, but not exactly known for their fast response time.
The smell wasn't as bad as Samson anticipated, more earthy than rancid, and they headed toward the back bedroom where, they'd been told, Cedarville's only celebrity had slept for years, rarely venturing farther than her front porch. Samson had seen a few of her movies. They were mostly B-quality, and Barbara Lace was never the lead actress, lucky to have a few lines and a tailored dress. Sure, she'd been a looker, but lacked the box office appeal of a Rita Hayworth, though the two were rumored to have entertained the troops together in 1944. If rumors were rivers, they would flood Cedarville, though. Samson only believed what he saw with his own eyes.
He glanced at the Meekers and Cully, assuming they'd never heard of Rita Hayworth or Ingrid Bergman or Dorothy Dandridge. Maybe Marilyn. That was all right. He'd come to accept his neighbors' unimaginative range of interests, admiring, even, their predictability. He doubted the men had ever suffered from anxiety, a morning feeling of dread simply because countless days stretched between now and the end. He'd wished for death so many times that the sight of Ms. Lace's bloated face didn't shock him at first.
Samson stopped at her bedroom door for a moment, peering in. She looked far from at peace, though her eyes were closed. Her dry lips were parted, her teeth almost bared in a grimace. The hand clutching her quilt confirmed an anguish in her final moments, and Samson looked away, unconcerned about what the men might think of him. A queasiness settled in his stomach, and he coughed into his sleeve. He'd shown up, hadn't he? And he would see this thing through.
Cully crossed to the window, putting his shoulder against the frame to force it loose from the paint. With a shudder, it creaked up, and icy air whipped into the room, blowing Ms. Lace's white hair across the pillow. Samson took a grateful breath and stepped into the room. He thought someone should take Ms. Lace's bony wrist between his fingers to check for a pulse, but it would have been a formality at best.
"How I'd like to go, sure enough," said Jamie.
"My own damn bed. Middle of the night."
Samson didn't respond, thinking about how many days the actress might have been lying there before someone noticed that her lamp stayed on, dusk to dawn. Before someone noticed that something might be wrong. The call went to an answering machine, of course, Clark Bishop more a police officer in name than anything else. He got sent out less frequently than the fire department, even though he drew a paycheck. Sheriff Bishop knew how to write a speeding ticket, and that was about the highest compliment Samson felt comfortable sharing.
Cully picked up a corner of the blanket, folding it across the dead body, then repeated the gesture at her head and feet. When she was fully wrapped, each man took a corner, assuming their roles as makeshift pallbearers without need of any instruction. Some tasks are instinctual. They lifted their burden, Samson cringing as the body slid toward his side. Then they headed back toward the foyer and through the front door.
The quilt bothered Samson, a Lancaster blue made — he guessed — in the 1870s and in collectible condition. The kind of heirloom that should have been passed down. The kind of heirloom that could pay off somebody's credit card debt. He tried not to, out of respect for the woman he carried, but he couldn't help wondering who would get the sideboard he'd glimpsed or the red bergère chair in the hallway. If it all went to auction, could he afford a few pieces? Were the kitchen drawers full of Rococo silverware? He forced himself to pay attention to the job he was performing.
They were careful going down the steps, watching for black ice. The hearse could be seen creeping toward them, and they shifted their weight from foot to foot, unwilling to put the blanket down on the driveway, but ready to hand over their responsibilities all the same. It was going on noon and First Baptist would be getting out, the parishioners sure to gawk at them and stop their cars before going home. Samson didn't much care for being gawked at. 53 Chritton Lane was remote, but not quite remote enough for a place short on news.
It was the kind of town where you couldn't rightly refuse a favor. With a thousand residents, Cedarville would fall apart if anyone learned to say no outright. You could age out, hoping a teenager would step into your place, wouldn't decide to abandon his boredom for college or a job. Always a gamble, trying to keep the young people around. And everyone knows you never bet against the house.
Mr. Pitterson shuffled out of his vehicle, Cully mumbling "Christ" at his appearance. The undertaker looked more phantom than human, looked every inch of his eighty-eight years.
"Hello there, Mr. P.," called Samson, raising his voice so the old man could hear him.
"Hello there, son. You holding up?"
Mr. Pitterson opened the back door, and the younger men surged forward, lowering the body onto the clean white sheet waiting for them. They stepped back, wiping their hands self-consciously. Even Cully looked a little pale, and he'd done two tours in Vietnam.
"I sure do appreciate y'all," Mr. Pitterson said.
Samson knew that the hospital a town over took care of transportation on most occasions. Mr. Pitterson and his son waiting for him back at the mortuary weren't up to removals anymore. Eli Pitterson, Jr., had cracked three vertebrae at a graveside service last summer and now hunched slightly. They should have both retired, but there wasn't anyone around to take their place. When one of the other funeral homes in the county went belly up, the Pittersons took on more than they could really manage from neighboring towns. Three or four unlucky souls per week, embalmed or cremated. Not to mention the services with programs to print, a piano to tune, paperwork to fill out. People joked that you better double-check your loved one's faces before lowering them into the ground. But Samson didn't care for that sort of talk.
"Kap's fifteen now," Jamie said, bringing up his youngest brother. "If you need some part-time help."
Samson doubted the cocky teen he'd seen around the square would take kindly to that suggestion, but then again work was work. The assembly plant up in Tewson was on an unofficial hiring freeze.
Mr. Pitterson nodded in response. "I'll keep that in mind. I truly will."
Samson glanced back at the house, its patched roof sharp against the white sky. Something seemed to flash in an upper window, but when it disappeared, Samson shook himself. Nothing but a trick of the light. He'd gotten used to seeing things from the corner of his eye, gotten used to turning a second too late.
"Will you be contacting her family?" Samson asked as Mr. Pitterson climbed into the driver's seat. He sat on top of a Nashville phonebook, so that his small frame could see over the dash.
"If I can find any."
The Meeker brothers were already in their truck, nodding goodbye to Cully, who turned to walk back to his place a mile or so in the distance. Samson offered him a ride, but Cully declined, lighting a hand-rolled cigarette and ambling away. After the hearse pulled onto the road, the only sound for miles was the wind and the periodic call of crows. The quiet kept Samson in Cedarville. Without any distractions, he could still hear his wife's voice sometimes, not as a whisper but clear as day. She might have been calling him from across the nearby field, telling him to come home. He looked there just in case, then he walked back into Barbara Lace's abandoned house, checking to make sure he wasn't watched. He shut the door behind him and let his eyes adjust to the dim light.
The oil portrait of Ms. Lace was a fair representation, painted sometime in the '60s, Samson speculated. A depiction of a mature, handsome woman with carefully plucked brows, lined lips, and shoulder-length curled hair. The colors were muted grays and greens, as if she were emerging from a forest, dressed to the nines. Pearl earrings and a pearl necklace made her look like a politician's wife, but her expression seemed tough, fierce even. Independent and no man's sidekick. While it was the most striking object in the foyer, Samson stopped to look at the framed photographs as well, recognizing Ms. Lace smiling alongside the incomparable Isadora Alvarez, a true Hollywood legend. The women must have been in their thirties, youthful and unstoppable, smiling at the lucky person holding a camera. It wasn't a paparazzi shot, but it was casual. A party, maybe, or somebody's wedding.
Samson fought an urge to take the photo off the wall and tuck it into his jacket. He thrilled at the prospect of exploring every nook and cranny of the place, soaking in the history. In the den, there were movie posters behind acrylic, and he recognized a few of the titles. All the Guests and Wild in Montana, a western from the '70s. The place was generally neat, but a couple of shelves overflowed with souvenirs — cocktail napkins from the Ritz, poker chips from a Las Vegas casino, a couple of yellowed scripts, one written by Ms. Lace herself. There was a prop crown that looked heavy, but lifted easily in Samson's hands, the rhinestones still sparkling after decades of neglect. A couple of stuffed teddy bears, the kind a lover might pick up if he forgot about Valentine's Day. Samson stopped feeling nervous about getting caught as he took the stairs two at a time. He had wanted to see Barbara Lace's old house ever since his wife told him about its folklore. Always practical, she objected to his use of the description "folklore." She's flesh and blood, same as the rest of us.
But Barbara Sussennox had a history that was anything but typical. At eighteen, she hocked her engagement ring and bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles. She checked into a cruddy hotel, and nobody heard from her for ninety-seven days. Her abandoned betrothed insisted she'd been kidnapped, but the police never pursued that theory, preferring the simpler explanation that she'd been hysterical, and wasn't a hysterical woman likely to abandon her societal duty? Her parents were a wreck, but her neighbors in Cedarville? They said she should have known better, that she deserved whatever happened to her for treating them all so poorly. But what should have been a cautionary tale ended with a twist. Barbara Sussennox — now reborn as Barbara Lace — could be seen on the silver screen, carrying a champagne glass through a crowded ballroom. "Pardon me," she'd called to Humphrey Bogart, her brunette pageboy sparkling in the chandelier light. One line, but one line counted. A bona fide speaking role in a movie. By Cedarville standards? She was a star.
And stars are forgiven for their sins, Samson thought as he reached the stained glass window, more appropriate for a church than a residence. It depicted an angel in indigo robes looking skyward. Gabriel maybe, or Azrael. Samson didn't know much about angels. From a distance, the scene was beautiful, but up close? Up close, the eyes were on different levels, and the hands were more like paddles than flesh. The figure looked almost melted, and Samson hoped for better finds on the dark second story. He didn't dare switch on a lamp, worried that whichever neighbor had reported the first time would call in a burglary.
There was light through the windows, though, and Samson turned left into what must have once been the master bedroom, when Barbara was still able to navigate stairs. There was a door to what might have been a servant's quarters in a different century. An enormous four-poster bed with a mint-green canopy stood in the center of the room, not touching any walls. Samson moved closer, rubbing his hand along the frame appreciably, and he let out a low whistle. The piece was in good condition, so he doubted he could get much of a deal. Still, off the top of his head, he knew three buyers who would be interested and grateful for a favor. He'd ring them when he got home.
The velvet comforter had moth holes, and after a moment's hesitation, he pulled it off, coughing as dust filled the room. A similar sound came from inside the next room, and Samson froze. Had he imagined the sound? His eyes burned from the filth he'd uncovered, and he wasn't surprised when his voice shook.
"Who's there? I don't mean any harm."
He wasn't sure if that was a true statement, but no answer greeted him either way. Instead, the house settled back into its tomb silence, and Samson fought all of his instincts to flee, forcing his boots toward the servant's door, which he flung open before he lost his nerve. He hoped that he would see a forgotten pet, some sort of ratty lapdog perhaps grateful for discovery, but instead there was a woman, her face streaked with tears, her arms cradling a 1910s-era Winchester rifle. An antique, sure enough, but old or not, it could still blast a hole through a man.
"Easy," Samson said, holding out his hands as he would to a skittish horse. "Easy."
The woman laughed, more of a bark, and peered down the sight. At this distance, there was no way for him to run or hide. For a brief, sweet moment, he welcomed the situation. At last, he thought, and such a tidy solution. Then, after months of depression, adrenaline took over, his heart racing, urging him to react, to survive.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Famous In Cedarville"
Copyright © 2019 Erica Wright.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
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