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Dogwod Murders

The black limousine rolled to a smooth stop in front of Maryann’s modest, whitewashed clapboard house. As Nancy climbed out of the vehicle, she noticed that in spots, paint had peeled from the old siding, revealing bare, weathered wood. The sparse lawn spouted early patches of crabgrass. It had certainly not been edged in several seasons. The short gravel driveway sported three potholes that should have been filled ages ago. Bud’s dilapidated old, faded Chevrolet sat midway down the short driveway, precluding anyone from parking behind the car. Neglect permeated the dismal surroundings, Nancy thought disgustedly. The only cheerful aspect of the depressing scene was the three dogwood trees in early bloom toward the right side of the house.
“Bud!” Maryann yelled as she pulled open the screen door, holding it for Nancy and Seamus MacPherson. They walked silently into the dingy living room and stood, waiting awkwardly. Maryann yelled into the room.
“Go pull the car up so’s someone else can park behind you! People’ll be here any second. And turn that danged t.v. off!”
Buddy Blevins swiveled the worn leather recliner slowly to face his wife. He held a Miller Lite can in one hand and the television remote in the other. He took a deep draught of the beer, emptying the can, squeezed it with his big, meaty fingers, and dropped it on the rug.
“O.k., o.k.! What took y’all so long?”
Maryann ignored him and walked right past Bud into the kitchen.
“Sit down,” Bud said, and waved his hand to Nancy and Seamus. The two obeyed wordlessly, as Bud shifted his attention back to the baseball game on the television.
“Can I get you anything, Seamus?” Nancy asked the whithered Scotsman.
The old man looked up, smiled shyly, and shook his head.
“No, thank you, Miss Nancy.
“Have a beer, Seamus,” Buddy grunted from across the room.
“No, thank you, Bud. Your mother’s memory, after all! She wouldn’a have approved, you know!”
“Hell, she never approved of nothing,” Bud growled in response.
Nancy rose and moved towards the kitchen.
“Maryann, can I help you with anything?”
Maryann, who was stacking plates and silverware on the kitchen table, looked up and shook her head.
“Nah, the ladies are bringing all the food and drinks. Ain’t nothin’ much to do, otherwise. Could check to see what the twins are up to while I get that lazy slob to move the car.”
Nancy went to the back door at one end of the kitchen and walked outside. Maryann’s twin girls, Courtney and Heather, were sitting on an old swing set in the back yard. Heather kicked little pebbles across the yard.
“Hi, girls!” Nancy said reasonably cheerfully.
“Hi, Aunt Nancy,” Courtney replied.
“Hullo,” Heather said dully.
“How about we take a walk while we wait for the folks to arrive?” Nancy suggested. She wanted to comfort the girls.
“Where to?” Heather asked quizzically.
“Oh, how about down to the creek? I used to find you down there all the time. Still catching tadpoles?”
“Nah, haven’t been to the creek forever. We’re not little kids any more, Aunt Nancy.” Courtney always seemed a little older, a little more mature than Heather, Nancy thought. Interesting how even twins could grow up so differently. Courtney had dyed her hair blonde, while Heather had streaked her black hair with touches of green and pink. She had also pierced her left nostril and sported a tiny cubic zirconium. Both girls were visibly overweight, Nancy noted with distress. She also noted the bondo-colored carcass of a faded red 1969 Mustang, still up on blocks since the last time she had visited Maryann’s home more than three years ago. It was sitting behind the garage, tall weeds growing underneath the chassis.
“Um, do you miss grandma, Aunt Nancy? You seemed so cool at the funeral and all,” Courtney asked hesitantly.
“Why, of course I do, Courtney!” Nancy said, somewhat shocked.
“Well, mom’s been going off every which way every second. She cries almost all the time, and yells at us even more than usual. I mean, I know you must have loved grandma, what with all the money and presents you always sent her. But you sure don’t show it!”
“Some people just show their emotions differently, Courtney. I…I just never have been able to get all gushy about much of anything. Do you understand that?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Sort of like Heather, huh? She never lets anyone know what she’s feeling either, do you, Heather?”
Heather just glared at her.
“Girls, the important thing is that we’re together. We’re family. And we can share the good times and the bad times. That’s all that counts, isn’t it?”
“Oh, right! That’s why you just up and took off!” Heather’s tone was resentful and insolent.
“Hey, Aunt Nancy’s always taken care of us, too, hasn’t she?” Courtney challenged.
“We really appreciate the allowance, Aunt Nancy. Both of us! You can’t believe how much it’s always helped!” Courtney gushed. “Dad sure wouldn’t have been able to do that. Didn’t even want us to go to the prom last year.”
“Your dad’s been having a lot of problems, girls. I’m sure he tries his best,” Nancy lied.
“Yeah, right!” Heather sulked.
Just as the three reached the front of the house, Bud Blevins slid his fat body behind the steering wheel of the Chevy, cranked the engine, gunned it, and lurched the car forward, spitting gravel.
He missed hitting the garage door by inches, braking hard. He killed the engine, and slid back out of the car just as a silver SUV turned into the driveway.
Several other cars had pulled up along the sidewalk. A small group of men and women gathered, exchanged solemn greetings. The women, still dressed in their finery from the funeral, carried various covered dishes and plates.
“Well, looks like folks are arriving. We’ll get through this, girls. Remember, we’re family!
“O.k., Aunt Nancy,” Courtney said. Both girls nodded.

If a funeral in a small southern town is an event of solemn note, the after-funeral gathering, much like an Irish wake, is a ritual assemblage of friends and relatives of the deceased. Emotional reminiscences about the deceased’s good deeds abound, as do some tall tales of dubious authenticity. Unlike an Irish wake, however, where the priest is the first most likely celebrant of fine spirits, the presence of a Baptist minister sternly precludes such festivities until his timely departure.
Brother Bob Hopewell was quite cognizant of how some of the group of friends and neighbors patiently awaited his exit. He politely remained at the modest Blevins home just long enough to fulfill his ministerial and social duties. With some carefully selected phrases from Scripture, he soothed Maryann, shared a few words with the twins, and once again told Nancy how good it was to have her back at home for a spell.
He moved through the small crowd, sampling some of the ubiquitous fried chicken, more than one flavor of green bean casserole here, a daub of spinach noodle salad there. He carefully avoided the red beans and rice, home cooked and brought by Mrs. Gilcrest, a stout, pink-faced, loyal parishioner of many years.
Confronted by her smiling, but forbidding admonition to sample her favorite southern staple, Brother Hopewell sagged his shoulders. He assumed a penitent look and posture that might have earned him an Oscar under different circumstances.
“Sister Amy, I am most certain that yours are the very best red beans and rice in the county! And I just bet you got that Andouille sausage at Brother Harmon’s, didn’t you? But I do confess that the beans, well, they just don’t agree with me any more, don’t you know?”
Sister Amy huffed off, which gave Brother Hopewell an opportunity to make his much-awaited exit. Spying Maryann, he paid his respects for the last time, hugging her closely.
“Thank you so much for everything, Brother Bob,” Maryann sobbed yet once again. “It means so much to me! Momma would’a been pleased, too!”
Nancy watched the pair quietly.
“I’ll see you to your car, Brother Bob,” she offered in a small voice. “And I do thank you, as well.”
She moved forward almost precisely in step with the minister, pulling open the front door. A gust of wind and a spray of rain enveloped them both.
“Oh, it’s started to rain!” she exclaimed.
“Well, as long as it’s not turning into a tornado, I’ll be fine,” Brother Bob said optimistically as he pulled his coat collar up around his neck. “Y’all stay here. I’ll just run on down. No need for you to get all wet.”
“Wait, I wanted to ask you something. Do you know who all of momma’s pallbearers were? I mean, the ones who aren’t here now?”
Brother Hopewell momentarily chewed on his lip.
“Why, yes, sure I do. There was Dean Johnson, he had to get back to the mill. And there was Bobby Tollett. He had to run over to Little Rock. Let’s see, whom are we missing? Tommy Tidwell’s still here, and …”
Nancy could not contain herself.
“The tall one, auburn hair. Jerry Grant said he was a friend of the family, but I can’t recollect him!”
“Oh, sure, he came late, almost had to replace him at the funeral home. Why, he was a friend of your daddy’s, from the war, I think. Yes, he was at your daddy’s funeral as well.”
Nancy’s pulse began to race, though she tried to keep her face only mildly inquisitive.
“So you know him?”
“Well, no, Nancy, can’t say I really know him. Only seen him at the funerals. Tell you what, I’ll call Lawyer Perkins on Monday. He’ll know for sure.”
“Oh, thanks so much, Brother Bob! Do you want to borrow an umbrella? You’ll get awfully wet!”
“No, thanks, Sister Nancy. I’ll be fine. Bye now!”
Brother Hopewell sprinted down the driveway and turned left down the street to where his brand new Chrysler was parked.
Nancy shut the door, and immediately became inundated by the noise of the entire assemblage that had now crowded into the small interior of her sister’s house to escape the downpour.
Maryann noisily shepherded the teenagers and smaller children to the back bedrooms. Bud and several of his pals hastily established a makeshift bar on the kitchen counter, breaking out previously unseen bottles of Jack Daniels and Old Charter.
“God, I’ve got to get out of here!” Nancy thought desperately. She could not believe that the stranger had not arrived as she had hoped. More than hoped, she thought. Expected!

“Nancy? Are you alright, my dear?”
Startled, Nancy wheeled around to face the voice. It belonged to Jane Summers, Bear’s Ridge equivalent of Dear Abby. A very corpulent woman in her fifties, Jane was the bearer of all good and ill tidings, true or otherwise.
“Yes, Mrs. Summers. I’m fine … under the circumstances.”
“Well, my dear, I just wanted to say that I think you’ve always been a wonderful daughter. Why, the way you took care of your momma, she was always so proud of you!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Summers.”
“And you’ve had such a sad life yourself! Why, seems ever since you were a little ‘un, you’ve had to deal with tragedy. I remember when no one could console you when your little puppy drowned in the creek. Wouldn’t talk for weeks!
“And then that horrible accident down at the bend when your little friend – what was her name – Jamie? - got caught in that weed-eater! What were little girls like you doin’ with a weed-eater, anyway? You couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, could you?”
“Twelve,” Nancy stated flatly while Jane Summers paused briefly, catching her breath, her ample bosoms heaving heavily.
Nancy’s eyes moistened. She had firmly buried those memories somewhere deep inside her. Now, the vision of Jamie’s blood spurting relentlessly from her carotid artery, squirting the sticky red stuff all over her face and blouse and jeans, returned. It wouldn’t have happened if Jamie had left her alone, instead of trying to take the infernal machine away from her. Try as she would, she could not stop the bleeding. Slowly, the spurts became less and less powerful until they stopped altogether. Just like the puppy had eventually stopped struggling and breathing.
Full of breath once again, Jane Summers rambled on, unaware of the slight change in Nancy’s demeanor.
“Well, and then, of course, I’ll never forget the day when they brought you and Cindy Stovall to the clinic. I was volunteering that day. Good Lord! We all thought you’d died, what with that glass cutting your face, blood everywhere. And poor Cindy, her neck and arms and legs all mangled! Thrown from that convertible of yours, the sheriff reported. No seat belts. Poor Cindy just didn’t have the strength to survive. And you were lucky you did!”
“Could we change the subject please, Mrs. Summers? I’m really not up to it right now,” Nancy said quietly.
“Oh, of course, my dear. How thoughtless of me! Come, let’s sample some of those delicious shrimp Billy Joe Junior brought!”
The two women slowly made their way through the crowd to the makeshift buffet. When Jane Summers engaged another visitor in conversation, Nancy seized the opportunity to duck into the kitchen. She peered outside. The rain had let up. Nancy pulled open the screen door and ambled to the back of the house where the old Mustang was sitting on blocks. She slowly circled the car, gingerly running her hand along the right front fender. Bud had replaced the twisted fender and broken windshield, but never painted over the dull, gray primer. Why had they bothered to keep it, Nancy thought. Maryann was like that. Couldn’t let go of anything that was hers, even if she never used it.
How fast had she pushed the car? Seventy? Eighty? All she really remembered was the horrible sound of shattering glass and Cindy’s screams as she was flung out of the car when it hit the bridge abutment. Nancy herself had steeled against the impact. Apart from cuts from the flying glass and some contusions, she was never in any danger of dying. If Cindy had not pushed and pushed her about how Danny Jarvis had made love to her, she might still be alive today, Nancy reflected. Nasty, spiteful Cindy!

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