Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (8 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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He looked up and his eyes were so sad they about broke my heart. “Okay,” he said.  And that was how it happened. We loaded his clothes into my car and drove back to Middleboro. He followed me out the door of that house and never looked back again.

 

A
girl named Rosalina once told me that her grandmother had the ability to put a hex on people—supposedly the woman caused a wart the size of an egg to swell up on her sister-in-law’s nose and Rosalina could recount plenty of other instances as well. A man who cheated the grandmother got hit by a garbage truck; a neighbor kicked a dog and got his cellar flooded; a heavy-handed butcher had thirty-six pounds of pork sausage spoil overnight—not one of those incidents had a logical explanation, other than the hex. I’ve often thought if I had such an ability Elliott Emerson would have started looking like Pinocchio as he sat there telling all those lies to Detective Nichols. 

After he had blurted out the worst of his accusations, Elliott told the detective, “This girl’s unscrupulous; she has no job. Swindling old people out of their life’s savings, that’s what she does for a living!”

“Destiny Fairchild?”

“Yes!  Destiny Fairchild!”

“On what is this allegation based?”

“She’s stolen my aunt’s money!”

“Allegedly,” the detective said, “allegedly stolen. Do you know exactly how much money is missing?”

“It wasn’t just money!”

“Well what? Stocks? Jewelry? Bank Accounts?”

“It’s difficult to pinpoint all the things, but this list…”

Hearing such talk made me wonder what the world had come to. Is money the measure of things? What about a good heart? Destiny Fairchild was the sweetest soul I’d ever known. She didn’t ask for anything and she didn’t need much to be happy. One of those clear blue sky days would come along—the kind with puffy white clouds billowed out like sheets on a clothesline—and that was enough to make Destiny start singing like her heart was full up with gladness. The only thing that girl wanted was for folks to love her. But Elliott, now he was a person itching to grab up every dollar he could lay his hands on.

 

T
hey say people can die of a broken heart and I for one believe it. Oh, the doctors give you a thousand other reasons, heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure—but the truth of the matter is sometimes people reach a point where they just quit living. That’s what happened to Will. Once Becky was gone, he pretty much lost his heart for living.  I’d worry and fuss over him, fold an extra blanket over his feet on cool evenings, check that he was taking his medication, cook up special foods—things he’d craved all his life such as cornbread or stewed butter beans—but nothing seemed to help. When I set that hot cornbread on the table, he’d smile the way he used to, but before I could fetch us a cup of coffee he’d be poking at the edges and pushing a bunch of crumbs off to the side of his plate. “I thought cornbread was something you liked,” I’d comment; but he’d look at me and shrug as if what he liked or disliked was something he was too tired to remember.

“I suppose I’m not all that hungry,” he’d finally say, and then an hour or so later he’d start telling me about how Becky always made her cornbread with molasses. “Yes indeed,” he’d lick his lips, “cornbread with molasses, that’s
really
good.”

I’d make up another batch and add molasses even though it wasn’t part of the recipe. Soon as the cornbread was out of the oven he’d break off a piece but before he’d swallowed that first bite, I’d see him shaking his head like a man who’d run out of hope.  “I reckon that wasn’t it,” he’d say and turn back inside himself.  

The problem was that he’d been married to Becky for over fifty years and couldn’t remember how to live without her. It might have been different if they’d had children – but then everything would have been different if they’d had children.

Elliott Emerson came to visit Will every few weeks. “How are you feeling?” Elliott would ask.  “Anything you want me to take care of for you? Insurance, maybe? Banking? Investment business?”  Will would just shake his head from side to side and stick to watching some old TV rerun. 

It was enough to make you cry because my brother had always been a smart man. The year we turned seventeen he went off to William and Mary College.
I wish you could be here, Abigail,
he’d written in his first letter.
This school has a million books and a library bigger than the LynchburgCity Hall;
he enclosed a picture of himself standing in front of the big stone building. For two years he studied at William and Mary but the third year Papa had his stroke and Will had to go back home to take over the farm, which wasn’t easy because by then Papa was more cantankerous than ever. Even though he was flat on his back, things still had to be done
Papa’s
way. After Papa died, Will ran the farm the way it should have been run in the first place; he put in fields of winter wheat and rotated the crops ‘till he got four, maybe five harvest seasons. Believe me; my brother deserved every nickel that came his way when that farm was finally sold. I still remember the day Will signed those papers; it was five o’clock in the afternoon when he telephoned and he sounded like he’d been nipping at the whiskey.

“Abigail Anne, you’re not gonna believe what I got for the farm,” he said.

I told him that if it was me, I wouldn’t give fifty cents for the entire place.

“Times have changed,” he said. “These folks are investing in the
land
and it’s not because of farming. They’re gonna build houses— hundreds of nice little three-bedroom houses right here on the Lannigan farm.”

“Hundreds?” The way I remembered it, there wasn’t more than one-hundred and twenty houses in the entire valley.

 “Yes, indeed; two hundred and forty to be exact. They’ll divide the bottomland into individual lots and put in cement streets that run clear out to Ridge Road.” Will hesitated for a second, then said, “Becky and I have already discussed this and, Abigail Anne, we both feel you’re entitled to half of that money; you’re as much a Lannigan as I am and that land was Lannigan land.”

“Hogwash!” was what I answered. “You worked that farm, Will. Papa left it to you and justifiably so. A person doesn’t get
born
into owning something. You work for it, long hard hours of work,
that’s
how you get to own it.”

Well, our conversation went back and forth for heaven-knows-how-long, but in the end I flat out told Will that I didn’t need the money and I wasn’t taking any. At any rate, it was the end of the discussion. I never did ask how much Will got for the farm or what he did with the money. 

 

W
ill died fourteen months after he came to live with me. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t help him get past loosing Becky. The doctors claimed it was the emphysema; but, I still believe it was a broken heart. 

Elliott was, of course, first in line at the funeral parlor. He had a black band around his arm and a hang-dog look on his face. Maybe nobody else knew the truth, but I sure did; that big phony didn’t care about Will anymore than I did Adolph Hitler. But, there he was, trying his best to look grief-stricken. The preacher had barely finished the ‘
from ashes we came and to ashes we shall return’
part of his sermon when Elliott whispered to me, “Do you have a date set for the reading of the will?” 

If I was a few years younger I might have lambasted him square in the nose, but in deference to my brother, I held my temper and in a very ladylike manner whispered back, “Go to Hell!”  

 

D
etective Nichols opened his desk drawer and removed a yellow pad. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll need your name, address and phone number.”

“Elliott Emerson. Fourteen-twelve Pine Street. Hazleton, Virginia.”

“Hazleton? Way down in Hazleton? What are you doing in Middleboro?”

Elliott fidgeted a bit, like people are prone to do when they’re telling a big fat whopper, “Well,” he said, “this is where the crime was committed.”

“Hmm…” Detective Nichols looked eyeball to eyeball at Elliott and leaned forward; I could tell he’d started to catch the stink of a skunk. “Interesting,” he said. “Most folks would just go to their local police station—how’d you know a complaint had to be filed in the township where the crime occurred?”

Elliott coughed several times and cleared his throat as if a pork chop was stuck in his windpipe. “I suppose,” he finally mumbled, “I read up on this sort of stuff.”

“Hmm…” The detective made a check mark in the margin of his notepad. “Now, let’s go through this again. Is it your allegation that this neighbor, Destiny Fairchild, has stolen your aunt’s money along with other personal property—right?”

“It’s not an allegation, it’s a fact!”

“That’s yet to be determined. I’ll need more information. What’s her address?”

“My aunt?”

“The neighbor, Destiny Fairchild.”

“I’m pretty sure she’s moved herself into my aunt’s house, even though she has her own place right across the street. My aunt’s house is number fourteen, hers is seventeen.  Seventeen Oakwood Drive, that’s it.”

“Do you know her social security number?”

“Of course not,” Elliott replied. “I hardly know the woman. She’s certainly not the type person I would associate with!”

“Why?” the detective asked, “Has she been in trouble before?”

Elliott shrugged. “That’s something I can’t say with absolute certainty, but given her larcenous nature, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised.”

“I take it she’s still at this address. Do you know how long she’s resided there?”

“Not long.”

“Less than a year?”

“Longer.”

“Two years? Three?”

“Four or five, maybe six. But, as soon as she moved in, she started grubbing money from dear sweet Aunt Abigail.” 

“How exactly did she do that?” 

Elliott started telling how Destiny would pop in most every day, but he made it sound as if she was up to no good; not once did he mention how she came there to help with my housework or take me to the grocery store or the doctor. “She started helping herself to my aunt’s assets little by little,” he said, “then, before anybody realizes what’s happened, she’s got
her
name on the checking account and she’s driving around town in Aunt Abigail’s car. Now, virtually all the valuables are missing from the house!”

Detective Nichols listened to the story Elliott was concocting. Every so often he’d jot another note on that yellow pad, as if he had heard some significant fact, but I could tell by the way his eyes were narrowed, the detective had his doubts about the truth of it all. I suppose that’s when I took such a liking to Tom Nichols. He had a way about him that made me think;
now, here’s a man who can sort out truth from falsehood.
    

“Do you know where Destiny Fairchild came from? The state? City?”

“I couldn’t even venture a guess,” Elliott answered. “For all anybody knows, she’s an escaped convict on the run!”

I noticed how Detective Nichols had started penciling in a bunch of interlocked boxes along the margin of the yellow pad. It seemed the more Elliott talked, the less the detective was inclined to write down.

“Can you give me a physical description of the woman? Height? Weight? The color of her hair? Eyes?”

 

O
ne week after Will’s funeral, Elliott telephoned me. “Being the only other Lannigan heir,” he said, “I was wondering when there is going to be a reading of my great uncle’s will.”

Of course, I was missing Will something fierce and feeling pretty blue to begin with, but the sound of that man’s voice edged me into a downright foul mood. “Stop pestering me,” I told him. 

“Well, Aunt Abigail, there’s a sizeable estate involved here, and my grandmother told me that Lannigan property is always passed along to the eldest male. As you know, I’m the
one and only
remaining male in the Lannigan family.”

“You’re no Lannigan! Shit, you’re a Baptist! Papa would roll over in his grave if Will ever left one nickel of his money to a
Baptist
!”

“But,” Elliott stammered, “you said…”

“I lied!” I slammed the received down so hard it probably made his ears ring.

At that point I thought I might be rid of that nuisance, but no, two weeks later I get a call from this lawyer who claims to be representing Mister Elliott Emerson.

“Oh, really?” I said. “And just what does that have to do with me?”

“My client has grave concerns,” Mister Binkerman said, that was the lawyer’s name, August J. Binkerman. “Grave concerns, regarding the distribution of assets belonging to your late brother, one William Matthew Lannigan.”

“Anything that belonged to my brother is none of Mister Emerson’s concern.”

“Mister Emerson feels differently. He believes that William Lannigan left a will which has not yet been submitted to the court for probate.”

“Listen here, Mister Binkerman,” I told him, “you’ve no cause to say such a thing.  First off, I don’t even know if my brother had a will. Second off, Elliott is
not
real family and my brother knew it.”

“Oh, don’t misunderstand, Miss Lannigan, Mister Emerson is not
accusing
you of anything. He’s simply questioning whether you might need help in bringing such a document to probate.”

“Elliott, helpful?”

“Yes, indeed. He’s quite prideful of his Lannigan heritage.”

 “Lannigan heritage, my foot! My brother came into some money,
that’s
what brought Elliott Emerson knocking at his door!”

“Mister Emerson can establish the authenticity of his bloodline, so I hardly think the fact that your brother realized a profit from the family farm means—”

“Related or not, my brother wouldn’t have left a dime to a conniver like Elliott.”

“Well, we can’t know that for certain unless there is a will.”

By the time I hung up the receiver, my blood was boiling; and off I went, hell-bent on sorting through every sheet of paper packed away in my garage. After Becky died, Will didn’t much care what happened to anything, “Do as you want,” he told me. So, I hired a bunch of movers to come in and pack up their personal effects; then I shipped most of the furniture off to The Salvation Army. I didn’t get rid of Mama’s sewing cabinet and some other things that brought to mind pretty good memories. 

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