Celia (a Haunting Mystery)

Celia
(a Haunting Mystery)

Excerpt from the book “Celia
(a Haunting Mystery)

S. L. Cullars

by S. L. Cullars
August/Septemeber 2002

Acknowledgements

A special thanks to those who encouraged me during this grueling (but fun) process, whether through kind words, honest criticism, infectious enthusiasm, or patient listening. They include in no particular order: Desiree Dawson, Alexandra Tschaler, Marsha Mountz, Kathy Alexandrakis, Jim Klise, Sabrina Collins, Ottie Young, Janet Eisenberg, Nathasha Hampton and a score of others. And of course, much thanks to my mother, Gloria.

Also a nod to Sue Nussbaum for some excellent editing.

Prologue – 1967

Celia gripped the steering wheel until the leather seemed to burn through her fingers. The brutal jarring had sent the tires spinning and screeching, and now the car sped across the median strip into the other lane at a half-turned angle. The edge of the sharp embankment was in front of her. She exhaled in jagged gasps as she floored the brake, but the car drew dangerously close to the embankment. There was nowhere for her to go. She screamed as it rolled down the sloping edge, picking up speed with its sudden descent. Her eyes closed to the death waiting for her, but not fast enough to shut out the image of the massive oak trunks coming up fast.

The car hit with pain-wrenching force, bringing down a cascade of leaves and branches on top of the windshield, blotting out the sunlight. Through the jostling and confusion of the impact, she heard the ugly screech of metal as her body was brutally slammed into the wheel. And then mercifully it was over.

Everything was silent. Even the morning birds had stopped chirping. The only sound now was that of her labored breathing filling the deafening stillness. She lifted her head; blood dripped from a gash where her forehead had made contact with the wheel. A few spots fell onto her dress, creating islands of red in a sea of white. Bright red beads obscured the translucence of the off-white pearls hanging around her throat. Her chest blazed with pain. Each breath was excruciating, and she wondered whether she had cracked a few ribs. Yet, she was still alive. She painfully brushed tendrils of hair out of her eyes. Tears flowed from both relief and fear, but the relief was short-lived. If she wanted to escape, she had to move now. They would be coming for her soon.

She looked through the side window, where a large crack ran from top to seam. She was in a partially wooded area with blooms of jonquils growing in patches around the base of the trees. The road was several feet above her now. If she could just get up there, flag someone down, someone who would drive her to the next county where she could find the police. But except for the Rolls, she hadn’t seen another car within miles. And not for some time. There was no one to help her. She was on her own.

She pushed against the jammed door, causing unbearable pain in her chest. At first, the door refused to give way, but desperation pulled strength from some reserve within her wrecked body and made her move with all her might against the door now welded to the damaged frame. It opened with a protesting groan, and she groaned in response as the fire in her chest flamed through her entire body. Then she heard the sound of the car above her on the road as the wheels came to a slow halt. Doors opened and slammed shut. She looked up and saw the shining gleam of the Rolls, coldly ominous in the warmth of the early morning sun. And knew it was already too late. She began to run for her life.

Chapter 1 – 2002

Cheryl unloaded the last of the suitcases from the small Honda before turning to look at the house. It stood as it always had, quiet, unassuming, despite the graceful columns and the majestic magnolia trees lining the walkway. These trees had stood since M’dear, her grandmother, was a small child, and now they greeted her with fragrant blooms of purple, yellow, and white. A breeze came up from somewhere, weaving its way through the leaves, causing them to wave to her as though welcoming her home. Home.

She lugged the heavier of the suitcases up to the porch and placed them near the old porch swing. When she had visited M’dear last spring, the swing had looked weathered from years of exposure to the North Carolina climate. Now, it was painted with a fresh coat of white that glared in the last light of the retiring sun. She didn’t know who had taken the time, maybe Aunt Gladys, since M’dear had been too weak in the last year and practically bedridden in her last few months of life.

She fought the guilt, as she had since Aunt Gladys had called and told her that M’dear was gone. Her guilt convicted her, telling her that she should have visited her grandmother more, should have made time, rescheduled meetings, taken a sabbatical from her small investment brokerage firm in New York. But she had never found the time, leaving much of the care-taking to her beleaguered aunt and a day nurse who had come by two or three times a week.

She had just gotten the last two suitcases up the porch stairs when the front door opened as if on cue. Cheryl wondered how long her aunt had been standing at the window watching her struggle with the luggage.

“Shoulda told me you were comin’ down. I would’ve gotten the room ready,” her aunt said, her tone slightly accusing.

The room was, of course, her old room, the room where she had stayed during those summer visits when her mother had brought her down to see her grandmother.

“This room’s gonna always be the room for my special gal,” M’dear had told her one summer long ago, when she was ten. That declaration had been punctuated with an offering of one of her delicious oatmeal pecan cookies, just hot from the oven. Cheryl doubted whether Aunt Gladys would have taken the trouble to make her feel as welcome.

“Well, don’t just stand there! It’s getting cool…I need to close this door.” Gladys held the door open wider, allowing her niece entry into the inner sanctum.

Cheryl bit back a retort. She understood the reason for her aunt’s coolness, but it still grated.

When she had gotten in the last piece, Cheryl finally turned to her aunt. They were standing in the foyer, the parlor which had served as M’dear’s sewing room to the right, the larger living room to the left, the polished oak stairs leading up to the bedrooms.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral. I got bogged down with meetings I couldn’t get out of and….”

“You don’t need to be explainin’ to me. The one you should be makin’ amends to is gone now, so there’s no one here standing judgment over you.” Gladys pursed her lips, making her look older than her 59 years.

“I know you’re upset about the will and I understand why you would be. You were her daughter. You tended to her, saw to her needs. I had no idea she’d leave the house to me.”

Her aunt just looked at her, letting the silence grow between them. After a few more uncomfortable moments, she finally spoke.

“You better get them bags upstairs. You know the way to your room. I’m gonna go put dinner on.” With that, her aunt headed for the kitchen, leaving Cheryl standing alone.

Cheryl uttered an expletive under her breath before navigating the stairs, a case in each hand. Of course, the woman wasn’t going to help her. Why should she?

The room was unchanged since that last summer she had spent here. She had been seventeen, newly graduated, wearying of the little girl status her grandmother constantly bestowed on her. She had tried to overcome its juvenile look with posters of Prince and Michael Jackson pasted to every bare wall space. The posters were long gone now, but the yellowing imprints of tape were still apparent. The canopy bed, the French Provincial dresser, the long neglected stuffed bears were still here, remnants of a childhood long past. Gladys wanted to make sure that Cheryl knew her place in this house. That of a child.

Cheryl sighed. She wouldn’t claim the master room just now. Not yet anyway. It was too soon. But she couldn’t stay in here. Maybe, the guest room.

Cheryl went downstairs, unaware of the unseen eyes watching her.

Dinner was strained. They were seated in the dining room with windows looking out onto M’dear’s rose garden which surrounded both the sides and back of the house. Gladys had laid out a real Southern meal…smothered chicken and rice, rolled biscuits, pecan pie. Yet the atmosphere was chilled. Gladys barely spoke two words to her throughout the whole meal.

Cheryl furtively watched her aunt as she ate. Gladys was still an attractive woman, despite the wisps of gray at her temples and crown. Her skin was smooth mocha creme, devoid of any signs of age and strain. Yet Cheryl knew the stress that her aunt had suffered…two sisters and a father gone, and now M’dear. She and her aunt were all that was left of the family. And now there was this rift that was threatening to widen the distance between them. Cheryl made several attempts at conversation, but Gladys remained monosyllabic at best, or just plain silent. Thankfully, dinner was over rather quickly.

Gladys rose to clear the dishes and Cheryl jumped up to help.

“I can do that!” Gladys snapped, then with a more even tone, “After all, you must be tired after that long drive from New York. Why don’t you go upstairs and settle in.”

“I have settled in. By the way, I think I’m going to change to another room. That small room is way too uncomfortable.”

Her aunt looked at her suspiciously.

“I think I’ll move into the guest room…for now.” She left the last unspoken, but her aunt understood. They both did. This was her house, fair or not, and she wasn’t going to be relegated to the position of a wayward child just making her way home. Of course, her aunt was free to stay, if she chose. She had no plan to kick Gladys out of her childhood home.

Cheryl left Gladys to the task of clearing the table. Was it her imagination, or did the clinking of the glasses and plates sound just a little bit angry?

She made her way to the living room and looked around. Everything was basically unchanged, except for the vase of freshly cut roses sitting on the table near the window. The green damask-covered sofa, the oriental throw rugs covering the parquet wood floor, the framed pictures sitting atop the fireplace mantle were as they always had been.

She looked at the photos. A couple of them dated back to the early thirties, showing a very young M’dear and Granddad on their wedding day. The other pictures were of their three daughters in the various stages of their youth: Celia, the oldest sister, killed nearly 35 years ago when she was just a young woman; Gladys, the only surviving girl; and Darlene, her mother and the baby of the family, who succumbed to breast cancer four years ago. Cheryl felt that familiar tug as she looked at her mother.

The later photos were of Cheryl as a girl. She scrutinized her younger self, pigtailed with braces, and inwardly she squirmed. She had never felt comfortable with her looks, especially as a child growing up. The beauty that had passed from M’dear to her daughters had somehow skipped her. Cheryl instinctively touched her hair, nervously patting the blunt cut that softly framed her face. The only thing she had of these women staring back at her were the eyes, almond shaped and fringed with lush lashes. Her lips were not as full, her features not as refined, but they had grown into a sort of symmetry that sometimes gave the illusion of the beauty that eluded her. Her genes were patrilineally influenced, the only thing she had from a father she hadn’t seen since she was two.

“How long you plan on stayin’?” a voice interrupted her thoughts. Cheryl jumped; she hadn’t heard Gladys come into the room.

“I don’t know yet,” Cheryl said, looking at her aunt, knowing this wasn’t the answer Gladys wanted to hear. “I’ve got some things to settle with the lawyer.”

At this last statement, Gladys visibly flinched, the only indication of the woman’s unvoiced fear.

Cheryl decided to allay her aunt’s worries before they irreparably tore at a familial fabric already wearing at the seams.

“Aunt Gladys, you’ve got nothing to worry about. I’m not planning to sell the house. This house belongs to this family, which includes you. You’ve lived here all your life and I’m not about to take this home away from you. I only want to talk to Mr. Blevins about some estate tax issues. That’s all. And then I thought I would just stay long enough to straighten things out, maybe get some R and R, away from my hectic schedule. I need to get refocused. And after that, I’m on my way back to New York. But while I’m here, I don’t plan to get in your way.” Cheryl hoped that her aunt would accept this olive branch. It was all she had to give at the moment.

For the first time since Cheryl’s arrival, Gladys seemed to relax, as though she no longer had to guard against some unseen foe.

“Well, it’s getting to be pretty late. I usually go to bed `bout this time. Guess I got in the habit from takin’ care of Mama so long. Had to grab whatever rest I could since she would be up all times of night, callin’ out in pain. I still get up sometimes, expectin’ to hear her call…and then I remember.” Gladys’ eyes began to water, and she quickly brushed away the only signs of her vulnerability.

Cheryl averted her eyes until Gladys regained some composure. Her aunt was very protective of her emotions, usually shutting people off before they got too close. For this reason, Cheryl fought the urge to go and put her arms around Gladys, knowing that the gesture would not be welcomed. She remembered similar rebuffs on other occasions, when as an overly affectionate child, she had tried to hug her aunt, only to have the woman throw off her arms, telling her that she was getting too big for such emotional displays. Cheryl had quickly learned to be on guard around Gladys. Time hadn’t really changed anything.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll just head on upstairs. Feel free to make yourself comfortable. If you get hungry later on, there’s a slice of pie in the ‘frigidaire.”

Gladys started out the room, then turned. “You know you can stay as long as you like. This is your home after all.”

Cheryl smiled at Gladys’ own olive branch, graciously given.

“Thank you, Aunt Gladys. It’s starting to feel like home.”

Cheryl wasn’t sure, but she thought she detected a slight smile as Gladys turned and left the room. She heard the creaking of the stairs, the soft shutting of the bedroom door. Well, maybe the tear was finally mending. She would just have to wait and see.

Cheryl stood looking at the pictures for a few minutes more. Her eyes were drawn again to the photos of Celia. There were three altogether, two of which were of Celia as a child in grade-school and as a high-school graduate, complete with cap and gown. The last was of a lovely young woman, with a broad smile and an open face. Cheryl remembered M’dear telling her that this picture was taken shortly after Celia had graduated from Howard University with a degree in architectural engineering. One of the few black women of that time to even consider becoming an architect. The family had been so proud.

Cheryl barely remembered Celia. She was only three when her aunt was killed in a terrible car crash. The other women, her mother included, would never elaborate too much about the accident. Cheryl often felt there was something more, something the others had kept from her.

With that unsettling thought, Cheryl decided to turn in. She would get up early tomorrow and drive around a little, get reacquainted with the town. Then later on she would go see Mr. Blevins, make sure everything was straightened out. He had been the one to call her about M’dear’s will, the first she had even heard about her inheritance. It had taken her by surprise, considering that Gladys should have gotten the house. That had been one of the reasons she had been reluctant to come. But now, it seemed things were going to work out after all.

Chapter 2

The smell of hash browns eventually woke her. As well as that of hot buttered biscuits with syrup and country ham. The traditional first morning meal. M’dear had made it for her those first mornings of her summer visits. Gladys obviously had remembered. The delicious aroma infused the room with the smell of home. She had forgotten how good it was just to wake up and not have to think about anything in particular.

As she lay there enjoying the moment, the sun reached through the sheer curtains of the guest room, touching delicate tendrils across her face. A chorus of birds exploded in the tree branches just outside the window, interrupting the early morning silence. A far cry from the blaring horns and sounds of congested life that often drifted up to her Manhattan apartment. She stretched and got up, wondering how long this sense of well-being would last.

After she showered, she looked over her wardrobe hanging in the closet, trying to decide on the appropriate outfit for her visit to the lawyer’s office. It had to be light and comfortable as the temperature here in Edenville usually crested between 85 or 90 degrees, even in early spring. But she also wanted to look professional. People took you seriously when they saw you were well-dressed and well-spoken. And she had fought long and hard for people’s respect, from her undergrad years at Hampton, her graduate years at Harvard, and her early years building up her business. She was a self-made woman, and she liked people knowing it.

She finally chose a lime-colored linen suit that showed off her figure and legs, her best attributes. She felt confident whenever she wore this outfit, getting satisfaction from the approving looks she usually got. She had never felt that kind of confidence growing up, so she relished it. Besides she needed some ego-boosting, especially now.

Downstairs, she found Gladys setting the table in the kitchen. The kitchen was Cheryl’s favorite room, with its abundance of windows and inviting bright colors. It had always seemed safe there, somewhere for a young child to hide away from the world. She remembered the many times she had sat at the Formica table with M’dear, helping her shell peas for dinner. Now it held a heaping plate of golden biscuits and equally copious plates of both ham and hash browns. Gladys, who had just finished setting the table, looked up as Cheryl entered.

“I didn’t know whether you wanted eggs or not. If you want, I can fry you up some…but then, you like yours scrambled with cheese, right?”

“Gladys, this here is fine. You don’t need to make anything more. Everything looks delicious. I’m probably going to gain five pounds just from this meal alone,” she said, taking a seat.

“You looking fresh and pretty today. Like you on your way to church.”

“This thing here, it’s just my everyday office wear. I thought it best to look the part before I go over to Blevins. You met him before, right?”

“Hardly. I didn’t even know Mama knew him until he called me to his office for the reading of the will. He’s kinda young looking, but he seems nice.”

“And M’dear made him the executor? Hmm, that’s interesting. But I guess it makes some sense, since he’s a lawyer and probably has handled probate stuff before.”

Gladys pulled out a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice from the refrigerator and poured the juice into two glasses before sitting down. Just as Cheryl reached for her fork, Gladys bent her head, signaling a blessing of the food. Cheryl put her fork down, and bent her head out of respect, if not worship.

“Lord, thank you for the bounty you have set before us this morning. And thank you for bringing Cheryl safely home, especially with her driving all that way alone like that. Lord knows anything might have befallen her but for Your precious hand on her. Take care of those of us still here, as You are protecting those loved ones now in Your presence, Mama, Daddy, Celia, Darlene and Ms. Miriam from next door. Make us thankful for the food prepared and received, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Cheryl mumbled a quiet Amen, reflecting on those no longer here. She wondered who Ms. Miriam was.

Gladys filled a plate with some hash browns and ham before speaking again.

“You remember a girl named Flora, don’t you? The neighbor girl you usta play with around here?”

Cheryl frowned in studied concentration. “Flora? Hmm. Yes, I think I remember her. She lived a few houses down, right?” Cheryl did remember a girl by that name, two long braids, skinned knees, crooked teeth, liked to climb trees without a care of the neighborhood boys looking up at her panties. Yes, she remembered Flora now. For a couple of summers, they had been like two kindred spirits, but had grown apart with each succeeding summer until Cheryl had forgotten her, until now.

“Well, they found her body last month. All broken up. Nobody quite knows what happened to her. They found her at the bottom of that hill over near the park, clothes half gone. They think that maybe somebody messed with her, and then killed her.”

“Oh, God, how awful!” Cheryl put down the fork of hash browns she had been about to put into her mouth. “Do they have any idea who might’ve done it?”

Although she barely remembered the girl and had not known the woman she’d become, Cheryl couldn’t help but shudder at the thought of anyone ending up like that.

“No, not a clue. She’d been away for awhile, out in California somewhere, her mama said. She was some sort of artist. Moved back here ’bout a year ago. I remember seeing her passing by one day. She stopped and talked with me for a while. Very lovely young woman, too. That was the last I saw of her ‘fore I heard ’bout it from Flora’s mama. Poor Naomi was destroyed. Flora was her only girl y’know.”

“I thought I’d left this kind of stuff back in New York. Rapists and killers. You’d think in this quiet town, you’d be safe to walk the streets.”

“There’s no where you can run from that. Devil’s all over the place. And he’s not particular about who he hurts,” Gladys said, taking a bite from a large piece of ham.

Throughout the remainder of breakfast, Cheryl had to mentally push away images of a broken woman, lying alone, discarded like a piece of detritus. Overlapping those images was that of a young tomboy, laughing as she dared the boys to catch her.

By the time Cheryl had driven over to Mr. Blevins’ downtown office, the sun was partially obscured by rain clouds quickly moving in. She cursed her lack of foresight that had made her leave her umbrella unpacked. She’d have to run into one of these stores in the town square after she met with Blevins and pick one up.

Mr. Blevins’ office was located in the middle of the square, across the street from the courthouse and down the street from the Sheriff’s office and County Jail. An advantageous location for a lawyer. The town square was a mixture of old and new, some of the buildings having been built around the turn of the century. The attorney’s office was located in a modest one-story building sandwiched between an antique shop and an ACE hardware store.

The interior was just as modest, if not outright utilitarian. The receptionist/secretary sat at an old scratched up pine desk in front of the door. There were two vinyl chairs with a table of old Field & Stream magazines sitting between them. The whole decor was right out of the ’50’s, down to the rotary phone the secretary was using. The only concession to modern technology was the computer sitting on top of the secretary’s desk.

Cheryl sat down in one of the chairs and waited for the young secretary to finish with her conversation. She looked fresh out of high school, with a scrubbed freckled face and flaming red hair to match. But her voice was that of someone much older.

“I’m sorry sir, but Mr. Blevins won’t be available for another hour. He’s on the phone right now and he’ll be in a meeting after that. Sir, Sir, I’m sorry. All I can do is tell him that you called. Sir, Sir! Thank you, Sir.” And with that, the woman practically slammed the phone down. “Jerk!” she muttered loud enough for Cheryl to hear, then turned to look up at Cheryl, who had gotten up and walked over to the desk.

“If you’re here to see Mr. Blevins, he’s not available.” The southern accent was cursory and dismissive, as was her quick assessment of Cheryl.

“He’s expecting me,” Cheryl said crisply, giving the woman a cold, leveled look she reserved for rude people. She had honed her skills on the streets and in the equally inhospitable boardrooms of New York and wasn’t about to take any mess from this woman. “So you can just tell him that Cheryl Thompson is here to see him. Thank you.”

The woman looked ready to say something, then, seeing Cheryl’s expression, thought better of it. She got up and stepped inside the closed office just behind her. After a few moments, the woman came back to the desk, a conciliatory smile on her face.

“Mr. Blevins says he’ll be right with you.”

“Thank you,” Cheryl said with a saccharine smile, then sat back down to wait. She thought she heard the secretary mutter something under her breath. Cheryl continued smiling.

After a few minutes, the door to the office opened and Blevins made his appearance.

“Ms. Thompson?” he asked, offering his hand. “I’m Arthur Blevins.”

Cheryl shook the hand, appraising the man before her. Aunt Gladys had been right. He was young looking, maybe in his late twenties. He was also a towering figure, built like a linebacker. Looked like he could have played for Grambling State. He was not wearing a suit jacket, but still looked impeccable in a crisp, white shirt, a lilac tie and lavender suspenders holding up the sharply creased light gray slacks. His dark brown skin was smooth, his hands well-manicured. Much too GQ for this old-fashioned office.

Now she understood why M’dear had placed her personal matters in his hands. He was someone with whom she would have felt comfortable. Mr. Blevins looked to be a personable, intelligent young man, and, more importantly, he was African-American. Or as M’dear would have described him, “a nice-looking cullid boy.” Her grandmother had held to her comfortable anachronisms, not caring much whether they were politically correct or not.

“Why don’t we go into my office.” He led the way, and she followed, the both of them under the intense scrutiny of the secretary.

As though substantiating Cheryl’s initial assessment, a photo showing a younger Blevins in full football regalia hung on the wall behind his leather chair, right next to his framed law degree. A couple of football trophies sat on a bookcase, also situated behind the chair. The wood-paneled office, the cherry wood furniture, was much more impressive than the outside waiting area. And it suited his image.

Cheryl sat down in the comfortable leather arm chair he indicated for her.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be here today. Especially since you told me you were driving down. I know how the roads can be.” He sat back in the leather chair, and openly assessed her, his eyes inquisitive. “So, how can I help you?”

“Well, first of all, I’m just a little curious. Why would my grandmother leave the house to me and not to my aunt, the more logical choice?”

“Well, your aunt wasn’t the logical choice to your grandmother. Mrs. Adams wanted the house ultimately left to you, but she wasn’t sure that your aunt would devise the house to you upon her death. So, to be safe, we decided to give your aunt a life estate in the house, which basically means she’s free to live there for the rest of her life. And then the fee simple would go to you.” He held his hands like the proverbial church steeple, fingertips touching.

“The fee simple?” Cheryl asked.

He leaned forward, his hands knotted together under his chin. “That simply means that you will have full ownership after your aunt dies. You can then do with the house whatever you please.”

“OK, that satisfies my first issue. Now, for the other issue, I would like a breakdown of all the estate fees and taxes, including your own fee as executor.”

“Well, basically my fee as executor came straight out of the gross estate. As did part of your grandmother’s burial costs. It seems her insurance didn’t cover everything she had been told that it would.” He was staring at her again. An indictment.

At the mention of the funeral, Cheryl felt her guilt rising. She hadn’t known that Aunt Gladys had been short of money for M’dear’s burial. She felt a momentary surge of anger that Gladys hadn’t contacted her. She would have been more than glad to cover whatever deficit there was.

“I didn’t know that…” she said, not so self-assured now.

He continued. “As for the breakdown, I’ll be more than happy to provide those numbers for you. Hold on, let me go get the file.”

He rose with a stealth of movement that suggested an athlete’s grace as he retrieved a manila file from the file cabinet next to the door behind her and returned to his seat, laying out the file’s contents on the desk. By the end of the half hour, he had delineated every cost and fee derived from the estate, giving her its full net value. Cheryl was impressed with his meticulous record keeping and his attention to detail. Throughout the session, he seemed confident and at ease. M’dear had been very prudent in her selection.

At the end of the meeting, Cheryl got up to go, satisfied that all her questions had been answered. But he called her back to her seat.

“This is for you,” he said, pulling a sealed envelope from the file folder. He handed it to her. “It’s a letter from your grandmother. She wanted me to give it to you after the funeral, but I’ve only now just gotten the opportunity.”

Cheryl looked at the handwriting on the envelope. It was M’dear’s handwriting, shaky with age and arthritis. It stated simply, “My Dear Granddaughter.” For the first time since M’dear’s death, tears welled up, threatening to spill over. She felt self-conscious, knowing that he was watching her. She reached for her purse, ready to search for a package of tissues, but he anticipated her need, pulling down a box of tissues that had been sitting on the bookcase.

“Here you go,” he said, handing her the box. “I know this is still a difficult time for you. Mrs. Adams was a wonderful woman. You must miss her.”

Cheryl pulled out a couple of tissues and wiped the tears.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get so emotional.” She nervously squeezed the used tissues into a ball, rotating it in her right hand.

“There’s no need to apologize, Ms. Thompson. Take a few moments if you need to.” His tone was no longer that of the attorney, but of a caring listener.

“No thanks, I’m fine now. Thank you for your time, but I think I’ll be going.” She placed the envelope in her purse. She would read it later in private. She stood up, and he rose to open the door for her. Before he opened it, though, he paused, looking down at her. He was close enough for her to smell a slight whiff of cologne, something woodsy, but not overpowering. She hadn’t noticed it before.

“Look, if you have any other questions about the estate…or if you’d just like to talk…about anything…say over coffee, feel free to call me. I admired your grandmother very much. I wouldn’t mind getting to know the granddaughter a little better. Here, let me give you my card.”

He went to his desk cardholder and retrieved a card. Then took his pen and scribbled something on the back.

“Here’s my evening number,” he said, handing her the card. “Like I said, if you’d like to get together over a cup of coffee.”

Cheryl smiled as she took the card and put it in her purse. “Thanks. Maybe, I’ll do that.”

“Good.” His smile was full of promise. Cheryl couldn’t help noticing the straight, even teeth. There was nothing about this man that was flawed or askew. She was usually wary of near perfect men; they tended to be peacocks. She’d gone that route before. But there seemed to be nothing narcissistic about Mr. Arthur Blevins.

As she left the office, she could feel his secretary’s eyes boring into her back. Almost like daggers. Was there some jealousy there, Cheryl wondered. Maybe Mr. Blevins was stepping out with his secretary. That was another scenario she was all too familiar with.

Outside, the first drops of rain were falling. She crossed the street and walked a few doors down from the courthouse, heading for Walgreen’s. A few umbrellas were already going up as people hurried to their destinations. Some undaunted window shoppers continued their excursion, despite the threat of the coming deluge. Cheryl gratefully reached the door before the thunderous downpour began.

She wandered among the familiar assortment of parfums, toiletries, and pharmaceuticals that was characteristic of all the Walgreen’s she had ever been in. She absent-mindedly searched the aisles for the umbrellas, her thoughts constantly going back to her meeting with Blevins…and his invitation. She pondered the idea of calling him, of getting together for an innocuous cup of coffee, or for something a little less innocuous.

She shook her head at the thought. No. She didn’t want to start something that would, at best, be short-lived. She wasn’t planning to stay more than a couple of weeks, three at the most. Besides, he was younger, too good-looking, and probably already had something going on, if not with his secretary then with any number of the overeager and available sisters out there. She had been hurt before, and those wounds were still raw. She wasn’t ready for another David.

She would still be married now, still be in her halcyon fool’s paradise, if she hadn’t actually caught them together—her husband, and his administrative assistant. With one indiscretion, he had destroyed eight years of trust, eight years of caring, eight years of being there for him. She had been so stupid. And his assistant so young and pretty.

No. She wasn’t ready for another David.

She found the umbrellas in aisle six, and chose a basic black one that was hand bag size. She paid for it with her credit card and left the store.

The rain was still pouring down as she stepped outside. The streets were almost deserted now, except for a few foolhardy stragglers. Most of the tourists and shoppers had taken cover. She walked to her car, a solitary figure battling the elements. The rain and warm air made her feel muggy and uncomfortable, pressing her to get to her car. She reached the Honda and got in, shaking out the umbrella with the door open. She was about to close it when she caught her reflection in the side mirror of the car. She stared in shock, letting the umbrella slip from her hands. The image in the mirror was distorted slightly by the rain splattering against its surface. But despite the rain, she could clearly see the face staring back at her.

It wasn’t her face. It was the face of someone else, a face she had stared at just last night. It was Celia’s face.

About the Book

Celia (a haunting mystery)
by S.L. Cullars


Part romance, part ghost story and part murder mystery, Celia is well-written, entertaining and fast moving. The characters are realistic and convincing as are the settings of the small Southern town. This book is a “keeper” and is definitely recommended.

Review by Nancy Madison, author of Clues to Love, Never Love A Stranger and What the World Needs Now available at Ebooksonthe.net, BookSurge.com, Amazon.com or BN.com, excerpts at ebooksonthe.net.

Loved the characters, felt like I knew them personally by the end of the book, the story line was intriguing, I never knew what was going to happen, and the end was a true surprise.

Travis Darby, Reader from Oregon

“Celia is an emotional, edge-of-your-seat paranormal mystery that grips your imagination and your curiosity and draws you inexorably into the story S.L. Cullars has created. A definite must read for the gripping drama and emotional intensity this author has set up. CELIA will draw you in, keep you hanging and then reveal the answers in a shocking, power packed scene that will leave you gasping.”

thebestreviews.com


Copyright © 2002 S.L. Cullars, reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. {jos_sb_discuss:9}

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