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Old Murders
Overmountain Press

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On August 16, 1912, Virginia Christian became the only female to die in the electric chair in the state of Virginia. She was a 17 year old (her age was the subject of debate) African American juvenile who had been convicted of the murder of her white female employer, Ida Belote. Virginia and her family was sharecroppers on the woman's farm. I discovered the case when I was during research for Blood on Her Hands, a book about women and murder. In Old Murders, I change the details of the case a bit and move it up to 1955. This is the case from the past that Lizzie finds herself probbing as two land developers in present-day Gallagher battle for the contract to develop the city's waterfront. Lizzie is also trying to find out what happened to a talented young artist/Piedmont State student who has gone missing.



Sunday, March 4
Gallagher (Virginia) Gazette
Letter to the Editor

Reject Project Renaissance

We’ve all seen or met him by now. He’s been out there shaking more hands and greeting more people than a politician running for office. Howard Knowlin, tycoon, multimillionaire real estate developer. The man talks a good game, but do we really want to depend on him for our salvation? After the Civil War, Yankee carpetbaggers arrived on horseback, by train, and by ship. Knowlin didn’t come that way. He flew into our municipal airport last year on a sleek corporate jet. But his motivation is the same. Greed. If we let this man come in and tell us how to go about restoring the vitality of our downtown, if we let him come in and buy up our prime riverfront property, including the abandoned Mercantile Mill buildings, we will live to regret it. We’re smart enough to save our downtown without the likes of this carpetbagger from Maine. What about the project Sloane Campbell proposed? Campbell’s project barely got looked at by the development committee after Knowlin arrived. It’s true Campbell doesn’t have Knowlin’s big bucks or his high-flying resume. But he does have good ideas, and he’s one of our own. Instead of signing on to Knowlin’s “Renaissance” scheme, we ought to send him back where he came from. Let’s use our own local talent and know-how to bring downtown Gallagher back to life.

Janet Nichols,
Owner, Daily Bread Bakery
Gallagher Native and Proud of It

* * *

After it was over, I came across that letter that I’d clipped from the newspaper because I’d been amused by the reference to carpetbaggers and wanted to share it with my students.
After it was over, that letter had a more ominous ring.

The letter writer had not been referring to murder when she wrote we would “live to regret it.” But that was what happened. A “carpetbagger from Maine” came to town, and someone was murdered.


Monday, March 12, 10:39 p.m.
The debate on the local radio talk show this evening was about Howard Knowlin. Callers were divided between those who thought he was the answer to Gallagher’s prayers and those who swore he was in league with the devil. As with most radio talk shows, the people who bothered to call in did not reflect the middle ground of people like me, who saw both pros and cons and hadn’t yet made up our minds.

When I turned in to my driveway, a caller was raising the issue of the environmental impact of the proposed project. He predicted grave damage to the Dan River.

I gathered up my things and locked the car. I knew George had heard me arrive, that he was listening for my key in the front door. But he would stay silent, waiting. Waiting while I put down my shoulder bag and briefcase on the chair beside the hall table. Waiting as I walked down the hall toward him. Waiting, lurking there on the landing at the top of the stairs, until I opened the second door.

Then he would spring out at me. That was his game.

Tonight was no exception. I opened the basement door, and George, my yellow Labrador-and-dash-of-whatever houseguest, charged out. Barking, tail wagging, he engulfed me in doggy enthusiasm.

Tonight, unlike the first time he’d played his game, I didn’t have a grocery bag with a dozen eggs to drop to the floor. Tonight, I laughed, hugged him, and dodged a wet kiss. “Hi, boy! I missed you too.”

Satisfied that he had expressed his delight at seeing me—and his pleasure at being released from the basement—he trotted off toward the kitchen and stood waiting beside the counter. The large dog biscuit I held down to him disappeared in two chomps. A quick snack on his way to the back door.

After four days—not counting our week together back in December—I was well trained. He barked twice. I unlocked the door and held it wide. He bounded down the steps and into the fenced-in yard. I flicked on the deck light. When he was outside at night, I liked to be able to see him.

But he was all right alone for a few minutes.

I pulled my U Albany sweatshirt over my head and went to check the messages on my answering machine. Quinn had said he would call me when his stepfather came out of surgery and they knew how things were going. I had almost skipped my workout at the gym to come straight home. But when he’d called last night, he’d said it would probably be late because today would be hectic and he would be busy with his mother.

Nothing on the first three messages. Telemarketers. I hit the delete button to erase the three hang-ups, then went on to the next message.

Doug Jenkins’s exuberant voice filled the hallway.

“Lizzie! Doug here. Calling about the pasta blast-off on Friday evening. I’ve been going over the list of folks who plan to attend, and your name is conspicuous in its absence. But I expect to see you there, lady. In fact, as your coach, I’m going to insist that you be there. You can’t walk a half-marathon when you’re low on carbs, and pasta is the official premarathon meal of champions. So I’ll see you on Friday. No excuses accepted. And between now and then, I want you to remember what I told you. Don’t you lose one more ounce, ma’am. A leggy five feet seven inches and 118 pounds might work for runway models, but you’re walking for diabetes research, not struttin’ your stuff for Calvin Klein.”

Laughing, I erased Doug’s message. A public relations consultant by profession and a jock at heart, he had volunteered to serve as coach-trainer for the walkers in the marathon. Even though I was doing only the half-marathon, he was monitoring my progress as strictly as those who were going for the full 26.2 miles. He’d been lecturing me about carbs, proteins, and energy levels—and about the nine pounds that I had lost since I started training three months ago.
Another telemarketer. This one left an 800 number and urged me to call within the next twenty-four hours to claim my “fabulous free vacation.” Delete.

I propped my foot up on the edge of the chair and worked at the knotted lace in my Nike. Then I pulled off the other shoe and hit the play button again. Warmth enveloped me as I heard Quinn’s rough-textured voice.

“Lizzie? Are you there? It’s after ten o’clock, so I hope you’re not still in your office. I know you want to get your manuscript finished. But, babe, you can’t train for a half-marathon and put in twelve-hour days at your computer too. Or is this one of your evenings at the gym? Well, even if you have been out building muscle, get some rest tonight. As in eight hours sleep, Lizabeth.” He paused. I heard a tired sigh. I could almost see him massaging the back of his neck the way he did at the end of a long day. “Ben came through the surgery. He’s in intensive care. The cardiologist is being cautious, but Mom’s sure he’s going to be all right. I think so too. Ben Kerchee is one tough Comanche.” Another pause. “You know how much I want to be there to see you cross the finish line on Saturday. But I’m not sure I’m going to make it back. Marielle needs to go home tomorrow. She’s been here since early last week. Angus is with the kids, but he has a conference in Houston that he needs to attend. He’s one of the speakers. So she’s gotta get back to Santa Fe. And if she goes, I should hang around here for a while. Anyway, I’ll be home as soon as I can. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. And thanks for taking care of George. I hope he’s not making a pest of himself.” An audible yawn. “Sorry, I’ve been up since 4 a.m.” Then he laughed, a low-pitched sound that rippled down my spine. “And I’m about ready to fall asleep and dream about you.” A pause. “I would say that I love you. But I know how skittish that makes you. So, good night, Professor, darling.”

Babe, huh? As a good feminist, I should object to being called “babe.” But “Professor darling” was acceptable. The “I love you” part was quite nice too. It didn’t make me nearly as skittish as Quinn thought it did.

I sat down on the chair beside the table and hit the button to replay. It was the last part of Quinn’s message that I wanted to hear again. I played his message back three more times to hear that last part again. Definitely nice.

However, it did require thought—as in resolution. I sat there staring down at my feet in their white socks, daydreaming about how the present situation between John Quinn, formerly of Philadelphia, and Lizabeth Stuart, formerly of Drucilla, Kentucky, might be resolved. Not all Yankee carpetbaggers were the same. This one said all he wanted was me.

And I was forgetting George. Neither one of us had eaten dinner yet. I grabbed my shoes and headed toward the bathroom for a five-minute shower. It was too late in the evening for a full meal. If I ate a big meal now, I’d toss and turn all night. So soup tonight, and tomorrow I would heed Doug’s nutrition lectures and have a real breakfast. . . .

Tuesday, March 13, 1:08 a.m.

I jerked up in bed. Moonlight seeped beneath the blinds. But the floor beneath the bed was pitching. The brass handles on the dresser clattered against the wood.

I fumbled for the lamp on the night table, and my hand struck the stand holding the handcrafted ceramic heart that Quinn had given me on Valentine’s Day. I grabbed for it as the table moved, but it spun away and onto the floor.

I found the lamp and switched it on.

George stood stiff-legged beside the bed. “George?”

He whimpered. We both held still in place. But nothing else happened.

An earthquake? It couldn’t have been an earthquake. We were in Gallagher, Virginia, not L.A. I reached for my robe and threw back the covers.

“Let’s go see what that was, George. But first, let me find my heart.”

I got down on my hands and knees to feel around on the floor beneath the bed. George nudged me with his head. “Just a minute, boy. Let me . . . oh, no!”

The light from the lamp fell across the ceramic heart and threw in relief the crack that I had felt with my fingers.

“Oh, dammit, George! It’s broken.” I stood up, cupping the zanily lopsided, multicolored heart in my hands. Now there was a crack down its center.

How was I going to tell Quinn? He had been so pleased that he’d given me a gift that had delighted me.

George butted up against my leg. “All right . . . it’s all right, boy. We’ll go see what that was all about. There’ll be something on the radio.”

Clutching the heart in my hands, I started for the door. George followed, hard on my heels.
“It couldn’t have been an earthquake,” I said. “We don’t have earthquakes in the South.” George gave an uneasy half-bark in response to my attempt at reassurance.

Tuesday, March 13, 2:33 a.m.

According to the news bulletin on Channel 13, the quake had been centered over 150 miles away, to the northwest of Gallagher. Close enough to be scary, but not life threatening.
I clicked off the big-screen television that belonged to my globe-trotting landlords. “Let’s go back to bed, boy. There’s nothing else we can do tonight.”

George followed me down the hall so close behind me that I would have trod on him if I had turned. Our 5.1-on-the-Richter-scale tremor had spooked Quinn’s dog. It had spooked me too.
“Just when you think life is finally settling down, right, George? Well, first thing tomorrow I need to get to Madeline’s Attic and ask her if the person who crafted my heart might be able to repair it.” I climbed into bed, but instead of putting the heart back on the night table, I tucked it beneath the opposite pillow. “Thank goodness I have a few days before Quinn comes home. Remind me tomorrow, George, that I need to send him a St. Patrick’s Day card.”
George had settled down again on the throw rug beside my bed. Quinn had told me not to let his dog get used to sleeping in my bedroom. But George and I had ignored that mandate. He liked my throw rug, and I liked his gentle snuffling sounds.

Especially tonight. Reaching out a hand, I let it rest on the dog’s head. He stretched out, preparing to go back to sleep. I hoped I could do the same. If the earth had opened up and swallowed us, I would have been thinking, I wish, I wish. . . . Or maybe it would have happened so quickly that I wouldn’t even have had that last fleeting moment to feel loss and regret.