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  Escape Fiction For Eager Minds
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Cover of Death Books a Return by Marion Moore Hill

.. excerpt from

Death Books a Return

-- Chapter One --

Juanita rapped a fourth time on the cloudy door pane. No response this time either. No light appeared behind the curtained windows of the shabby frame house, no sound came from within. Where was Samuel Davis? He had made this appointment reluctantly. Had he decided not to keep it?

Shifting her bag to ease her shoulder, she glanced around nervously. A street lamp came on in the early dusk just as a young black man in jeans and no shirt bicycled into its glow. He pedaled slowly past the yard, eyeing Juanita curiously.

She peered at her watch again. She was right on time. Was Davis inside the house, hiding?

What now?

Some people must know the truth about that old atrocity. Others must strongly suspect, yet it had never come out. Someone—maybe someones—must badly want the past to stay buried. So why should she think she could ferret it out?

Because snooping’s your specialty, her wise-guy conscience nagged. And because you ought to occasionally use your powers for good.

Further knocking seemed useless. Juanita closed the screen door, sidestepped a hole in the porch floor, and climbed back down the uneven wooden steps.

As she walked towards her car, chunky heels clomping on wooden planks laid across the drainage ditch that fronted the lot, another possibility occurred. Davis was getting on in years. Maybe he had fallen and was too weak to cry for help. Too, she hated leaving without satisfying her curiosity.

A yellow tabby stretched languidly on a park bench under a tree near the front of Davis’s lawn. A breeze ruffled Juanita’s short dark hair.

Reaching a decision, she reversed her course and detoured around the corner of the house. A squeaky, grating sound from behind the dwelling sent a shiver through her. She paused, realized she was holding her breath.

“Silly,” she scolded herself, and continued her stroll.

Behind the house, rays from a pole light in the yard next door pierced the encroaching gloom. A door on a decrepit tool shed swung lazily on creaking hinges—the squeaking sound she’d heard. Beside the ragged remains of a vegetable garden, a worn pair of overalls drooped from a clothesline.

Juanita approached the back door, pausing as something metallic glinted on the ground near the stoop. An aluminum TV-dinner pan, evidently now a pet dish. She lifted a tentative fist to beat on the door.

She lowered it again. In Bryson’s Corner, Oklahoma, still a mostly black town decades after school integration and fair-housing legislation, her fair complexion stood out like a penguin in the tropics. Someone might find her presence back here sus-picious. Juanita retraced her steps around the residence.

The neighboring house beckoned, its window panes and open front door spilling brightness into the night.

“I can at least ask about Davis,” she muttered, hurrying towards the beacon. She climbed solid homemade steps onto a wide porch edged with flower boxes of spicy sweet williams and presided over by a white bench swing decorated with dusky rose accents. Through the screen door, she glimpsed overstuffed chairs covered in splashy red-and-yellow fabric that suggested sun-drenched climes.

Reassured by the welcoming air of the house, Juanita felt the lump of tension in her throat dissolve. She knocked and waited a moment, gazing approvingly around the yard. Hearing a step inside, she turned expectantly, lips parted to ask a question.

The screen door jerked open. A wave of cold liquid sloshed Juanita in the face. She gasped, dropped her purse, and clutched the door frame.

“And don’t come back!” cried an indignant male voice.

Spluttering, Juanita eased open a smarting eye. The blurry figure of a thin African-American man stood there. Speechless with surprise, she brushed her sight clear. Wide dark eyes stared from his walnut-hued face, topped by a graying frizz. His arms cradled an empty pitcher.

“Uh-oh.” He gulped. Banging the screen door, he back-pedaled and fled.

Juanita licked her lips. Grape flavor, sticky.

What had she walked into? She tugged at the new shirtwaist now glued to her stomach. In the light pouring from the living room, she saw the pristine ivory of her dress was now splotched a deep reddish violet.

“Hey!” she called through the screen. “What was that about?”

A raised female voice inside demanded, “What happened to that juice I poured up, Daddy? The jug’s empty. You couldn’t’ve drunk it all.”

Low-pitched tones replied. A back door slammed.

“Lord, what’ve you done now?” the feminine voice said. A plump woman entered the living room and marched across to the front entry. As she peered at Juanita through the screen, her vexed frown vanished. She suppressed a chuckle.

Juanita pushed dripping hair off her forehead and straightened her shoulders, trying to regain a shred of dignity.

The woman composed her features and opened the door. She was about Juanita’s age, with skin dark and rich as topsoil and shining black hair in neat corn-rows. A Wyndham Community College T-shirt snugged her heavy upper body.

“Sorry about that, ma’am,” she said. “Daddy thought you were a pesky salesman come back. He was trying to teach the fellow a lesson.”

Juanita managed a shaky smile. “Actually, I came to ask if you know where your neighbor might be. Mr. Davis?”

The brown eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“I had an appointment with him tonight. But no one answers at his place, and it’s all dark.”

“Uncle Sa—Mr. Davis—is in the hospital.” The woman hesitated. “I’ll get something to wipe that mess off you.” She left, and returned with a roll of paper towels, ripped off a few, and handed them out.

Juanita blotted her face, hair, and clothing. “Hospital? I hope it’s nothing serious. I’m Juanita Wills, by the way—librarian at Wyndham Public Library.”

“Althea McCoy.” She eyed Juanita thoughtfully. “You drove all the way out here from Wyndham?”

“Yes, and I’d better get home and try to clean this dress.”

Althea tossed the roll of towels from hand to hand. “Is it washable?”


“Time you get home, the stuff’ll be about dry—might not come out then.” Althea sighed. “You better come in and let me wash it for you.”

“Oh, I couldn’t put you to that trouble.”

Althea lifted her chin. “I do know what to do with stains. You ought to see what Daddy brings in sometimes.”

“I don’t want to be a bother. Really.”

“It’s his fault you’re in that fix. Come on in.”

Envisioning the beautiful fabric upholstery in her new car stained with sticky grape juice, Juanita grabbed her bag and followed. Althea led her to a neat yellow-and-white bathroom and handed her a soft blue robe.

“You’re about my size, so this ought to fit. Toss your things in the hall. Clean towels’re in that cabinet.”

Juanita removed her sticky dress as directed but kept her purple-specked underwear on. She scrubbed blotches from her arms and face, rinsed gumminess from her hair, wrapped the housecoat around her sturdy body, and joined her hostess in the kitchen.

A pot of fragrant stew simmered on a range, and a coffeemaker on a counter brewed accompaniment. Althea stood at the sink, spraying something on the soiled dress. She looked up, frowning, as Juanita entered.

“Take a seat. I see you got most of it off you.”

Feeling awkward, Juanita sat at a chrome-and-Formica table laid with two place-settings.

“This is kind. I’m sorry to interrupt your supper preparations.”

“Mm,” Althea said noncommittally. She held up the dress and studied it, then sprayed a few lingering spots.

Silence yawned between them. Althea put a stopper in the sink and ran water. Examining the dress again, she nodded her satisfaction.

“Glad the summer’s about over,” Juanita ventured. “It’s been a bad one.”

“Mm.” Althea swished detergent into the water and dunked the dress.

“My tomatoes dried up in the heat. You do any gardening?”

“Not me. Daddy and Uncle Sam—Mr. Davis—do a little together.” Althea emptied the sink, filled it, and rinsed the dress.

Juanita fidgeted. Her hostess didn’t seem any more thrilled to have her than she was to be here. Finally, Althea heaved a relieved sigh and squeezed water from the garment.

“That got it. I’ll put this in the dryer. Want some coffee?” She head-gestured towards the pot. “I’m having some.”

“Okay, then. Thanks.”

After Althea started the dryer, she and Juanita carried full cups to the living room. Juanita sat in a deep-gold recliner and gazed about.

“Pleasant room. What an interesting wood sculpture.”

“A friend bought it in Nigeria.”


Juanita studied her hostess. Resolute chin, keen eyes, laugh lines around the mouth. The hands of a doer, capable and strong. A stack of textbooks sat on an end table beside Althea.

“Are you a WCC student?” Juanita asked.

Althea pulled at the logo on her top. “I was. Now I go to T.U. at night, work days.”

“I never attended Tulsa University, but I hear it’s good. What’s your major?”


“That was mine, too. Good coffee.”


“You work in Tulsa?”

“Yes. Pierce and Hammersmith. I’m a legal secretary.”

Minutes passed, a wall clock ticking loudly in the quiet.

For something to say, Juanita asked what classes Althea was taking.

“Chemistry, which I don’t enjoy, and Victorian lit, which I do.”

“I like that period of literature, too.”

They found similar tastes in books and authors, and Juanita impulsively asked Althea to join the Wyndham Literary Society. “‘Books,’ we call it for short. We used to meet weekly, then went to twice a month, now once a month—people are so busy. Our moderator’s out of town now, but I can let you know when we’ll meet again.”

“Thanks, but between work and classes I’m snowed. Got to get busy on a term paper about Dickens’s travels in America. This prof’s tough.”

“I’m researching a history, myself. Of Wyndham. That’s why I need to see Mr. Davis.”

“He’s never lived there.”

“I was told he might have information about an old murder . . . of Luther Dunlap, a young man from Bryson’s Corner who was . . . killed in Wyndham.” As Juanita recalled the few details she knew about the horror that had occurred in her generally peaceful town, a shiver of shame and revulsion went though her.

“It happened back in the late fifties. I just recently learned about it myself. You know anything about that?”

A shadow crossed Althea’s face. “No.”

“I understand Wyndham boys were thought to be involved, but no one’s ever stood trial.”

Althea picked up her cup, and Juanita noticed the brown hand shook slightly. “More coffee?”

“Better not, though it’s delicious.”

The dryer buzzed. Althea carried their cups to the kitchen and brought the clean garment back. Juanita went to change in the bathroom.

“I’ll be going now,” she said on returning. “Thanks for saving my dress.”

Her hostess smiled. “You were a sight. Daddy owes you an apology himself, but he seems to’ve lit out for other parts.”

Something clicked for Juanita. “McCoy—is your dad Garvin McCoy?”

The frown returned. “Yes. Why?”

“He was mentioned as another possible source on that old case.”

Althea bit her lip. “Daddy can’t help you with that. Anyway, why’re you so interested? It’s not like anyone could do anything about it now.”

“Probably not. But this case intrigues me—partly because almost everyone I’ve asked about it clams up or changes the subject. Anyway, I’m trying to record the history of Wyndham, and that means telling it all, not just the parts that make the town look good. Wyndhamites need to know this chapter of their story, too.”

Juanita picked up her purse. “Mr. Davis’s illness must’ve come on suddenly. I talked to him by phone just yesterday.”

Althea hesitated. “I guess it did.” She pressed her lips together, then added in a worried tone, “His neighbor on the other side, Mrs. Umstead, said he called her soon after lunch, needed to get to the hospital but was too giddy to drive. Daddy’d gone fishing, or he’d have asked him.”

“Hmm. Is Mr. Davis subject to such ‘spells’?”

“No. For his age, he’s healthy as a mule. But Mrs. Umstead said he complained of headache and stomach pain all the way into Wyndham.”

“That doesn’t sound good. I do hope he’ll be okay. Well, thanks a—” Juanita turned to go, then stopped. “You know, we’ve got something at the library that might help with your paper. The son of a woman named Maizie Stevens left us her books when she died—they’re worthless except for some journals kept by people in her family. One, I remember, tells about the diarist’s seeing Dickens in person. In Cincinnati, I believe. The Stevens Collection isn’t open to the public, but I could let you use the diaries.”

Twisting a sparkly bracelet on her arm, Althea considered. Slowly, she shook her head. “I . . . I guess not. Thanks, anyway.”

“Just a thought. I appreciate your help tonight.”

“Take it easy now.”

Walking to her car, Juanita thought about the conversation. Once they’d gotten past the awkwardness of the situation, a camaraderie had developed over books and classes. But the subject of Luther Dunlap had made Althea wary. That might simply be because the killing of a black man was a painful subject. Or was there more to it?

Juanita crawled into her late-model blue Civic and started it. As she reversed to turn in the narrow street, her car lights picked out a man seated on the bench in front of Samuel Davis’s house. He seemed to be watching her, his skin gleaming with a chocolaty sheen in the glow from her headlamps. She spun the wheel, shifted, and drove off. In her mirror, she saw the man rise and meander towards the McCoy home.

Garvin McCoy, she guessed. Returning home, now that she was leaving.

Copyright 2008 Marion Moore Hill. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 4 August 2008
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