Back in the present, I recall that I am to meet Betty Whitman. It is funny how one tragedy sometimes cements other relationships. With my brother languishing in state prison, my relationship with him had weakened to almost nothingness. But my relationship with my neighbor has improved. Out of all the riffraff that surrounds me, Betty is a ray of sunshine. The cigarette-smoking, blonde, next-door bimbo is the one standing with me in my hour of need. I can see right through her, and what I see makes me happy.
We are sitting munching on sandwiches at a sidewalk café. She does not say much; I realize that she is giving me space. But I do want her to talk. I do want her to hear what I have to say. Finally, after a long silence, she speaks.
“It must have been terrible,” she says.
“Which part?” For me, the entire ordeal has been one long nightmare.
“You can tell me,” she says, “whenever you feel like.”
“I never liked him much,” I tell her. I realize this is the first time I am admitting my lack of compassion for my brother. “Edmund was always the person I didn’t want in my life. I had to wear his hand-me-downs, watch the movies he liked, read the books he didn’t like, and still I was expected to grow up like him. There was never a moment growing up when I did not feel I was competing with him. But now… now that he is… it is all so unfair. He was a thousand-and-one things, but I’d for the death of me not believe that he could be a murderer.”
It is three months to the murder now. The sentencing has been swift because it was such a clear case, and now there is clearly no way out for him.
“Alice was with Edmund in college,” Betty says. “She knew him. I guess they even went on a date together. It didn’t work out, but she told me he was a fantastic person. Full of humor and chivalry.”
“She would have said that,” I tell her. “The sneaky scoundrel was full of charm. This is not right what happened with him, not right.”
And then I surprise Betty. I sit upright, shrug my shoulders and I even give her a little smile.
“But let’s think of it as a closed chapter now,” I tell her firmly. “I am done. I am done with the remorse. Quite honestly, I am fine. I can breathe easily. There is no one now that I can feel outclassed by. I am my own man.”
I take her by the arm and walk proudly with her all the way to the house. The sudden closure has made me feel happy. I celebrate with her all through the night.
We have been indoors all morning, and the blinds are still on the windows. The sunlight streaming through them gives an interesting gleam to the room. Betty is sitting at the foot of the bed, slowly massaging my foot, and I am looking at her in admiration. This girl has given me so much, I feel that I should now reciprocate.
“There is a strange story in our family,” I tell her. “It’s about a letter. Whoever has possessed the letter has fallen into great peril.”
She looks at me, not understanding the point I was trying to make.
“My great-grandfather had it,” I tell her, “and he was gored to death by a bull in the village square. One of my uncles had it—Uncle Dustin—and he just literally fell dead. No reason, no explanation, nothing. Then it went missing for a long time.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Edgar?” she asks.
“The point is, the letter had disappeared all these years. And then it suddenly turns up with Edmund. He had it on the night he killed Madeline.”
I pause so that she can take in the full meaning of the words.
“You mean—” she begins to say something.
“—the letter made him do it,” I finish her sentence.
“What a load of nonsense!” Betty says, straightening herself from her uncomfortable stance.
“Believe what you will, but that’s the way it is. He didn’t tell me about the letter, but the investigations brought it up.”
“What’s in the letter?”
“Nothing that could reveal anything about its insidious nature. Just a single sentence written at the center of a blank yellowing page.”
“What does it say?”
“The payment is due.”
“So you have read it?”
“Quick question then—why didn’t it do anything to you?”
She has a valid point. Even I have thought about it all these years. Why did the letter not do anything to me? I read it too. Was its mysterious power nothing but a rural myth known to only my family? But then, I had gotten my answer a few months ago, a little before the death of my parents.
One morning a little before my parents died, I had caught a man at the door of their house. His attire—that of a cheap navy blue suit with a dark green tie and had horn-rimmed glasses—told me at once who he was. All the same, I asked him. He turned out to be John Winsome, attorney at law. My suspicions were confirmed.
This could certainly be no good. I knew my father wasn’t keeping quite well. His ailment was nothing physiological; it was his mental disposition that had degenerated. That, and a lawyer at his doorstep, did not add up to something good.
It flashed before my eyes in an instant. I wasn’t the favorite son. If there was something cooking up, I was sure I wouldn’t have a good share in that. But my knowledge of the will would be my weapon. I cajoled Winsome into joining me for a couple of drinks.
He hemmed and hawed, but a lawyer can do only so much to stay away from free drinks, and so an hour later we were sitting in my study, emptying glasses of Jack Daniels one after the other. At least, he was emptying them and I was watching him closely.
“So what was the visit about?” I asked him when I saw the right moment, which was the cusp between too little drink and too much drink.
It was the right moment. He blurted it out like it were a song.
“Ha! Ha! The ways of the world, Edgar,” he said, red in the face with the booze. “You are going to be royally screwed, right, left and center. And yet, here you are, sitting and drinking with me. Oh, sorry I said that.”
I gave him some bull about not minding about me and going on with his banter. I laughed along with him for effect.
“Theodore Grange, my client and your foster-father…” he began to say something, and immediately checked himself.
I stood up, full force.
“What did you just say?” I lashed out at him.
He had consumed over a bottle, but probably he had the resilience of a bull, for in a moment he understood the faux pas.
“Nothing, I said nothing.”
“No, you clearly said foster-father,” I persisted.
“Oh, this is so going to ruin me.” He fell at my feet.
“Tell me what you know,” I said. “I don’t think I should be kept in the dark about such a big thing. Am I an adopted son?”
“St. Augustine’s Orphanage and Foster Care,” he said, almost in tears for his lethal mistake, “that’s from where you were gotten when you were two years old.”
“You know about this and I don’t? Why?” The shock of the news had receded, and it was soon getting replaced by raw anger.
“Because I am making his will,” he said.
“What’s in the will?” I asked.
“Please, I cannot tell.”
“Don’t you think you have hidden enough from me? Do you think you have the scruples to put legal ethics in my way?” I caught him by his collar and raised him against the wall, full height. I had never held a man like that, but Winsome was so squirrelly that it took no effort to intimidate him.
“Please do not hurt me,” he implored. “I will tell you, but you should promise me not to tell anyone you heard this from me.”
“Just tell me if you want to die another day,” I said.
“You get 10,000 pounds.”
“There is nothing else.”
My father wasn’t the richest man in town, but 10,000 pounds was not even one percent of his entire assets. Of that I was sure.
“Where does the rest go?”
“To your brother.”
In anger, I started throttling him. He gagged. “It is not my fault, is it?” he spat out.
“Why even 10,000 pounds?” I asked.
“Your father says…” he choked, “he says… this is his act of charity.”
I left the poor sod. The alcohol had drained out of him by now.
“Please do not tell anyone,” he said, not believing for an instant that his pleadings would be acceded to.
But I surprised him. He was on the floor now, and I stooped as low as he was. “Don’t worry,” I said, sporting a smile that carried no humor. “I won’t tell anyone.”
The attorney left, but he kept back a phrase that hovered thickly in the air of my room. An act of charity. My whole life thus far had been an act of charity.
Betty is still here. She looks at me like I am a specimen in a biology jar. Her careful scrutiny makes me nervous.
“Do you believe in that letter?” she asks.
“I do. The supernatural is not to be trifled with. It has taken two lives at least, and caused a third person to take someone else’s life. So, it cannot be completely without reason. I would not take chances.”