Grandma Ethel. 13,300 Adult. How Grandma got her money.
The action alternates from American Civil War to modern times. It includes theft, S&M, slavery, and murders. An admitted con-woman, Grandma accumulates a fortune.
To kids like Katy and Jimmy the house looked like something out of the dark ages, sitting alone on a small wooded hill and silhouetted by a setting sun. As in pictures of haunted houses, it sported two towers and a slanted roof atop three stories. Built of wood, with a covered porch encircling the entire structure at ground level, it might have been beautiful when new. Now, it was only a large old-fashioned structure badly in need of paint. Its nearest neighbor could be seen far away through the trees. The building had sat quietly and empty for years, gathering dust and rot. Miraculously, no windows appeared broken and the grass was newly mown.
Through the eyes of children, it also promised adventure. Most likely the only means of excitement they would find in that small town in Ohio. To their mother, it was a childhood home she’d done her best to stay away from. Their father saw it as a chance for more privacy than he’d been accustomed to in a big-city apartment.
Picksville was too tiny for a movie theater or even a soda fountain, both staples for children in that year of 1960. There wasn’t even a grade school. The kids would have an hour bus ride each way. At least it was still summer vacation.
On the good side, they’d each have their own room, better than sharing like they’d had to do in Toledo. Looking at the structure, Jimmy hoped there would at least be electricity and an inside toilet.
“I get first pick. I’m the oldest.” Katy jammed an elbow into her brother’s side, receiving a glare in return.
“I’m biggest and can run faster, so you’re shit out of luck,” he retorted, causing his father to reach back and flail an arm in an attempt to slap the child.
“None of that language, young man,” Tom Simmons called back half-heartedly.
Sharon, the mother, sat quietly, inwardly shuddering in contemplation of all the cleaning she was in for, not to mention unwanted isolation.
“I don’t see why Mother couldn’t have given us cash instead of this money-pit,” Sharon complained. “My brother gets rich while I, supposedly her favorite child, am stuck with this dump. The local idea of a society function is the county fair. We can look forward to stepping in cow poop while looking up sheep butts.”
“We have money, baby,” Tom answered. “She willed you quite a bit … only not as much as other relatives.”
“Sure she did. By the time we fix up this place we’ll be broke. You better enjoy yourself for awhile. When the cash is gone, you’ll have to go back to work.”
“I hope to finish and sell my next novel by then. I hated that sales job. You know that. This will probably be my only chance to make it as a writer.”
“Fat chance,” she spit out. Look at that damned shithole, Sharon thought. Ten miles to the nearest frickin’ town, if you can even call it that. “You should have kept your job and we could have sold this place.”
“Finally, peace and quiet after all the noise and bullsh … crap in the city.” He breathed a sigh of relief, ignoring his wife. “I’ll have all the space I need for my own office and the peace and quiet to write, far away from the children.”
“Yeah, sure. And I hope they have a cleaning service around here, and a good damned baby sitter,” Sharon continued. “We could have sold this hole and gotten a large condo in the city, with plenty of money left over. Instead, we’re out in the sticks with a bunch of illiterate local oafs for neighbors. ‘Oh, have you seen today’s half-hour of The Way Life Turns, on television?’”
Her mother had been the same, Tom thought, good at spending but not earning. The family fortune had come from Great-Great-Grandma Ethel. Although nobody could say for certain how it had been acquired, it had been enough for five generations of Jacksons.
Apparently Old Ethel had somehow found a way to make money during the Civil War. She had certainly been a business whiz, investing it wisely for the rest of them to enjoy. She had also had this house built — maybe to annoy Sharon a hundred years later? He laughed at Ethel’s foresight.
Tom’s attention went back to his driving as they pulled into a hundred-yard-long driveway ending at a three-car garage that had started life as a stable.
The two kids were the first to get out of the car and, whooping, raced to find the best and biggest room for their own. As Tom and Sharon followed with suitcases, they could hear noises on uncarpeted upper floors as the children ran from room to room. The youngsters tried to outdo each other in searching for more space and better views amid a clutter of ancient dust-covered furniture.
“When’s the moving van due?” Sharon asked, also noticing the furniture. At least, she thought, it was covered with sheets and tarps. That would save a little effort and help in later resale. There must be antiques in the mess. Maybe there’s some hope after all. A dozen rooms of antiques would be worth money — once she convinced Tom to sell the house.
“Should be here soon. It left ahead of us. And the lawyer said the cleaning service would get in touch sometime tomorrow,” Tom answered, looking around a large living room.
“Ha, don’t look like it. The lazy asses are probably sitting down to a meal in some greasy diner right now — which is where we should be. I wonder if there are any real restaurants in this hick town? There weren’t when I was a kid.”
“I brought a bit of food with us. We’ll be alright until tonight. Got to see if we have a refrigerator and electricity first, then I can find a store to stock up.”
“Right. Bologna and potato chips.” She sneered, wondering how she had let him talk her into it. “Well, guess we should unload the car and do a little planning before the truck arrives.”
“I’ll unload while you check on the kids and look the place over. Decide what goes where. Don’t you remember the layout? You lived here often as a kid?”
“Not any longer than I had to. I was raised somewhere else. My mother only lived in the downstairs part since Pa died in ’43, and I didn’t have any urge to explore the filthy caverns upstairs. It was dirty as hell even then, probably dust a foot thick by now. Ma never cleaned up there. Her arthritis made it hard to climb stairs.”
Upstairs, Jimmy and Katy had settled on their rooms. Katy picked one at the rear of the second floor that had a good view of a small artificial pond.
Jimmy chose a corner room on the third floor where he had three windows to Katy’s two. He didn’t notice at the time, but there was also a square panel in a closet ceiling that led to a full-length attic. There was another attic entrance, with a folding ladder inside, over the hallway outside his room.
It took over a week of cleaning, buying, selling, and junking furniture; as well as arranging the old with the new for the family to settle into their new home. All Sharon did in the way of helping was to berate and annoy the cleaning service.
Tom set up his office in a rear room on the first-floor where he was far from the noisy children and had a good view of the pond. The adults chose a second-floor bedroom, glad to be away from the noisy boy on the third floor.
Jimmy had the entire floor to himself, a fact which he really enjoyed.
No one had spent much time in the basement, simply sending someone down to clean it, and calling a repairman to check the oil furnace and get it ready for winter. All their possessions together left them no need for basement or attic storage.
Tom, his new home office ready, figured he had to get back to work, actually writing full-time for a living. Sharon put an ad in the local newspaper for a parttime maid and nanny for the kids.
Things soon settled down with all except Sharon growing used to small-town life.
She joined several clubs while Tom worked at his writing and the children made new friends. It wasn’t until winter that Jimmy and Katy noticed the attic door. The occasion being a week-long snowfall, school being canceled because of the weather.
“What’s that for?” Katy asked during a rare happening where they played together in his room. She pointed to the square entrance set in the ceiling of his large walk-in closet.
“Dunno. Never noticed it before.” Jimmy went over to look more closely. “Let’s find out.”
He dragged a stepladder from a hall closet and they soon had the door open. It wasn’t nailed shut, only a thin wooden square sitting in place over the hole. Standing on the ladder, Jimmy hoisted his older shorter sister up and then pulled himself in behind her. Enough light came from two dusty windows, one at each end, for them to see.
As with the rest of the old house, the space contained piled-up junk and old furniture — surfaces covered with dust and spider webs. They could see bats hanging from the high part of the ceiling, but were careful not to disturb them.
Boxes and trunks sat in piles across the floor. It was a wonderland to two bored kids.
“Look at all the old clothes?” Katy had found poles across one corner of the large space. They were filled with hangers containing coats and dresses, most discolored by ages of dust and crapping bats.
Jimmy ignored clothing to head straight for the trunks and boxes. He thought he might find some war stuff, or even a skeleton or two. Maybe someone had killed an Indian and hidden the body up there or it had been used to smuggle escaped slaves during the Civil War?
Tiring of dirty coats and raincoats, Katy made her way to rows of bookcases in another corner. Although not being able to read small print in the dim light, she thought she should find a stack of books to drop downstairs and read later.
“I’m going to take a couple of books down with me,” she told her brother who, in any case, was scarcely interested in what she was doing.
While she looked over the offering of dusty literature, Jimmy had already acquired a small stack of goods ready to take with him. Most of them he simply kicked down the hole to his room, not worrying about breakage. Then he looked up at the bats. He wondered if he could wake the creatures and watch them fly around his sister?
While so pondering, Jimmy saw something glinting on top of a rafter. He stretched as high as he could and dislodged a cloth bundle held together with rope. It “thunked” on the floor, disturbing the rodents — some of which did wake, dropping and flapping their wings. The boy, curious about anything that had been hidden, hurriedly kicked the package down the hole and jumped to the top step of the ladder. He could hear his sister screaming and flailing away at the creatures, which gave him a good laugh.
“You stupid ass,” she yelled, sweeping her arms around, causing the bats to become even more excited. “I’ll get you for this.”
Running to the hole, she jumped down without looking, knocking Jimmy off his perch. They both fell to the floor on top of his acquisitions.
“Look what you did?” she screamed. “Now I don’t have any books.”
“Go on back up. I’ll keep watch. I’ll watch them eat your funky butt,” he offered, still grinning. The boy noticed a book had come partly out of his last bundle. “Here’s one. You can read it if you want, but remember, it belongs to me?” Jimmy graciously offered it to her.
Seeing it was all she had and fearing the bats, she grabbed the thin volume and stormed back down to her room.
About that time, Sharon called them to a supper of canned soup, lunchmeat, and potato chips, washed down by canned sodas. They still hadn’t found a maid and Sharon was a lousy cook.
After eating, Katy went to her room. She spent a few minutes looking out at the snowstorm. There wasn’t anything good on television, at least that she wanted to watch, so she half sat, half lay, on her bed and opened the dust-blackened volume her brother had found.
Right away, she had to get back up to wash dirt and dust off its leather cover. It was old but looked on the inside like a modern lined notebook, only bound in leather rather than plastic or cardboard. The first thing she noticed was that about a third of the pages were torn out at the beginning. Ripped out, not cut. There were faded brown stains on the torn edges and a large blob of the stuff on the inside of the front cover. Icky, she thought. Making herself comfortable, she began reading….
23 October 1912
I have to apologize to myself for this mess. I managed to get Joseph’s blood on the pages and had to tear them out. I don’t know what I’ll think of it years later when I peruse this section or, heaven forbid, a police officer sees the bloodstains, ha-ha.
I’ll do my best to copy it from memory but no guarantees, at my age, on veracity. There, might as well get started.
(The next entry was at the top of the next page.)
My name is Ethel Simpson and I am, or was, a con-woman. I confess that I’ve lived a rich and varied life. I’ve killed, saved lives, and have done one hell of a lot of wicked things in-between.
I was born and grew up in Washington D.C. where my father worked as a tanner and would come home at night smelling of the piss they used to prepare hides. Aside from that, my early life was simply shitty, ha-ha.
My mother was a full-time drunk that worked as a parttime service-woman to service servicemen, ha-ha. What a mouthful. Between my father’s meager income and hers, we managed to scrape by during the War Between the States. He had a bad leg from cutting it with a scraping knife at work. Not able to march, Papa was excused from fighting.
As I was saying, I grew up poor. At fifteen, I joined my mother and helped to comfort many a soldier, both Union and Reb — when they had the town. It made no difference. Whomever had the money and inclination. Which is how I met Fred, or Frederic, as you will and he called himself.
Fred, or Frederic, was one of the kinkier ones. Let me tell you about it….
“Shut up you bastard and suck it. I can’t stand your whining.” Fred lay on the floor on his stomach sucking my big toe. “Get your slimy tongue in between them, you bastard. Lick out all that crud,” I ordered him.
While he was so engaged, I looked out the window at passing traffic on the avenue below, pausing to strike him occasionally with a birch branch. Complete with leaves, it made more noise than it caused pain and certainly made no marks his wife might find later. I guess you would have to have been there to appreciate the process. It seems as amusing in retrospect as it did at the time.
Fred was a federal judge whose wife didn’t appreciate him or give him any comfort. One of those women who figured sex was for procreation. Never, praise the Lord, for recreation. According to him, she was gone a lot of the time and had her own room when she was in town.
“Get your ass up,” I ordered gruffly. I made him stand and turn around. While pulling and twisting various appendages, I laughed and further humiliated and chastised him.
“You useless piece of shit,” I whispered angrily as I stood in front of Fred, glaring up into averted, tearing, eyes. “You two-inch-prick wonders make me sick.” I gagged at the thought, turning away in disgust.
You can picture me slapping and spitting in his face, kicking his fat ass, and the like as he whimpered and cringed. He paid by the hour and got his money’s worth.
Afterward, since he was a steady customer, we sat and shared a bottle of expensive wine he had brought for the occasion. Outside role playing, we were also friends. He had helped me out with the police on several occasions.
“Too bad, but I have to leave town.” He shook his head. Dressed, he was an imposing figure. Freddy weighed in at about three-hundred pounds, with no gut at all. He was mostly muscle — but not between the ears. “I’ve been given a new position down in Beulah Land,” he told me, taking a sip of wine.
“What’re you going to be doing there?” I asked. “I hope you enjoy it.”
“Oh, I will. No doubt about that.” He guffawed. “Now I get my chance at them damn Rebels. They split up the rebel states into five military districts, and I get to run one — any damned way I please. I’ll break them bastard plantation owners and slavers.” He grinned at the thought. “I plan to take their land and give it to the freed Nigras. We’ll see what they think when they’re living in a little shack while the black bastards tear up their fancy mansions.”
“And you’ll probably get rich in the process?” I observed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he told me, seriously. “Too bad you can’t come down and see me in action. I’d like to have you with me, honey. But I don’t think my wife would like it. If it wouldn’t be for her, I’d take you with me in a, hee-hee, Yankee minute.”
That last statement got me to thinking. He still had a week to organize a staff and pack up, along with many meetings arranged with other officials. It did have me pondering though — why not? If only his wife stood in the way, maybe I could do something about it? The matter was worth checking into.
The very next day, around noon, I waited outside a store she often frequented. I knew his wife would be there around that time. She shopped on that street every Tuesday afternoon. In-between physical sessions, Fred had told me a lot about the bitch.
Not knowing for certain that she was inside the shop at that moment, I still hadn’t formed any plans. I was only there to look the place over but knew I had to hurry if I wanted to get it done. The answer came when I saw a huge beer wagon pulled by six large horses go by. The driver was in a hurry — as they always were — rushing down the street with little regard for pedestrians.
I was incredibly lucky. Seeing Fred’s wife come out, I accosted her and was able to carry my idea out immediately.
“Mrs. Adams?” I called out. “How are you doing, honey? Haven’t seen you in ages.”
We stood on a board sidewalk next to the roadway. She was probably wondering who I was — since I seemed to know her. I could see her brows furrowing in concentration. Me, I was waiting for a beer — wagon, that is.
Obligingly, one came by at the right moment.
“I must confess I can’t place you, madam? Where have we me — “
Which was all she managed to get out as I shoved her as hard as I could into the roadway. I admit, it wasn’t a very ladylike act but accomplished my purpose.
Too late to stop or even swerve, the horses were on her, literally mashing life from her body. Not to waste anything, I casually picked up her package and walked away during the resulting excitement. I got a nice dress out of the occasion as well as a free pass to the New South.
Frederic couldn’t take me with him on his military train, so I was required to take a horse-drawn coach to Atlanta by myself — using his money — and managed to meet some interesting people on the trip. One was a rather handsome young man.
Joseph happened to be a lawyer representing a group of landowners from the Atlanta area. As their representative, his job was to spread money around Washington on behalf of his clients.
I put on a southern accent for the occasion, along with my new dress — courtesy of Mrs. Adams. Of course we were soon engaged in polite conversation.
“I haven’t been home since before the war,” I lied to him. “What are things like in Georgia? I hear it’s horrid?” I flashed a paper fan.
“And so it is, Ethel. You won’t recognize the place. Negroes running loose all over, getting in trouble. The economy’s horrible. We had our own money, which is now worthless. Unemployment, rampant crime, depression — you name it. On the other hand some, like my clients, weren’t idealists. They insisted on payment in gold and came out all right.”
“And what about you, sir? Did you come out of it wealthy?” I fluttered my eyelashes.
“Oh, I’m not too poor. Not by plan, though.” He groaned. “I happened to have been a Confederate government lawyer and had connections. When the rich needed a lawyer, I got the job. You see, when we lost, conditions changed almost overnight. First of all, the slaves were freed. Most people thought they would stay on at their work and get paid a pittance, but were wrong.
“The majority of them soon wandered away. Since farmers have nobody to work the land, crops are rotting in the field. Many of them, mostly the smallest landowners, are going broke.
“Land taxes were raised by State and local governments already destitute from war expenses — and couldn’t be paid by people not having hard currency such as gold or Federal notes. So a number of large and small plantations and businesses now belong to the State of Georgia and sit unused.
“Small farms and factories have suffered in the same manner, resulting in many newly-unemployed whites also wandering from place to place looking for employment.
“Crime’s so bad some of the towns and cities have simply given up on civil services, spending meager resources protecting the remaining landowners from raids by wandering masses. Many small-town governments simply winked out of existence. With nobody to pay their salaries and no finances to apportion, their employees simply went home.
“The only authority holding things together are the Federal troops stationed in every town and, I hate to admit, there aren’t enough of the bastards to do the job. Look at them lopsided and you end up in jail. Yes, ma’am, things are horrible back in old Georgia.”
“Isn’t there something we can do? You seem to be making out all right?” I asked.
“My family’s wealth being mostly gold and little paper money, we survived. Now, we’re starting something up that might help. You ever hear of the Knights of the White Carmelia?”
“Can’t say that I have, Joseph. What are they, bankers or something?”
“More of a social club, one with money and power. We plan to use it to hold the Negroes in their place. If one gets uppity, we pay him a nighttime visit. Right now, we’re only getting started but we already got us chapters in a good many towns in Georgia. It’s under different names, each run by locals but loosely affiliated.
“We’re becoming larger every day. If the Federals can’t control the scalawags from the south and carpetbaggers from the north, by God, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”
He told me about his organization and how they planned to influence the occupying army. A bribe here, a kickback there, and an occasional act of violence. That they, we, would have to accept some changes. Negroes would not only be able to vote but also run for office. But the keywords were “would” and “run.” And that those particular Negroes “would” be “run” out of the State.
“We can sure as hell scare them out of voting, and make sure the right ones run; those that can’t win. Imagine one of those bastards in Congress, making laws that white men have to follow? We’ll kill them first. Kill a few and the others will get the message.” His face turned red as he spoke with great vehemence.
I figured he was a nut, but spent the long trip learning more about his job and nut group. I had nothing better to do except looking out the window of the carriage. A few people got on and off along the way. Before we arrived at Atlanta, I jotted down Joseph’s address and promised to look him up once I was established.
I rented a nice suite in a boarding house, using Freddy’s money. He had arrived already by government railroad but was still too busy to meet with me.
With nothing else to do, I spent days wandering the streets and observing conditions. The homeless were everywhere, crowding both streets and city parks. They stood outside restaurants, begging for handouts. Groups of Negroes and poor whites fought constantly and were never seen together. I heard tales of killings out in the countryside — unchecked or even investigated by overworked officials.
Corn and other crops had grown tall enough to eat but had no one to harvest them. Crop rich, the farmers had no money to pay for harvesting, nor buyers for their crops. The raiding gave some of the poor a little temporary employment as guards, which further lowered the profits of the landowners. It looked like many farmers would end up sitting-out the next few seasons, since they would lose money on this one — which would make things even worse the next year.
But I did get the germ of an idea. I spent the night thinking about it. Because of my influence with the military governor, there was an opportunity for me to make money there in Atlanta. I could pass as a southern belle and, then too, I was ambitious and ruthless. That could be a winning combination….
Katy drifted off to sleep with the book still in her hand. She dreamed of being a rich southern aristocrat before the Civil War. Of having servants and living in a large mansion.
Jimmy finished watching television and wandered up two flights to his bed. As he passed her room, he yawned at seeing his sister already asleep.
He was wondering if school would still be called off in the morning and anticipating an exciting bus ride over icy roads if it wasn’t. He liked to ride the slipping and sliding school bus.
Opening his door, the boy saw the sprinkling of junk from the attic lying on the floor next to the stepladder.
Carrying the top bundle to his bed, he unwrapped an old woolen coat, getting dust all over his blanket, and found two real guns. One was a rusty Smith&Wesson revolver that broke open at the top to load cartridges. The other a double-barreled derringer. The smaller weapon was wrapped in a stiff, oil-soaked rag and in much better condition. Jimmy looked in vain for a way to open it. He didn’t know that it was a black-powder weapon that had to be loaded down the barrel, and didn’t open.
Real guns! He would have to hide both before his mother saw them. There was also a bundle of old-style Daguerreotype photographs in various states of repair. Some were completely black from age and exposure and others, the ones in the center of the deck, in fair condition.
The photos were of people in very-old clothing. Some were standing together in groups, others of one person. One woman was in most of them, and she looked something like his mother. There were also two kids in some of them, and they looked like the same ones at different times in their lives.
Other photos were of the house, even one taken in the basement. Now why would someone take a photo of a basement wall with only a table and horse-collar in it? There were maybe twenty viewable photographs altogether. Since none of them had guns or Indians in them, they didn’t interest him much.
Wondering what to do with the things, he shoved the photos into a drawer to hide them from his sister. He knew she would be interested and that he could use them on her later, to trade for some favor or other.
Now that he had real guns, all for himself, he thought about what he should do with the things. He would find oil and clean them off, then show them to his friends. Jimmy thought about how jealous the other boys would be when he showed them two big, shiny and real, cowboy guns. When he went to bed, the smaller one under his pillow, he dreamed of being a riverboat gambler in the old, old days.
Sharon was really starting to hate the place. Now that she had money she wanted to spend it. To have fun and a new wardrobe.
“But you can’t, baby. We don’t know how much we’ll need to fix the house. We have to patch the roof, and that barn needs to be either repaired or torn down.” Tom reasoned with her. “We’ll have to wait and see how much is left.”
“I can’t believe I actually gave in to you, Tom. We should have sold this place, right at the onset. We could have fixed up our apartment and be living in relative luxury. Now we’re stuck way out here in this dump.” She slammed her coffee cup down on an unsteady kitchen table, splashing it onto the tablecloth. “See what you made me do?”
“We have to think of the future, honey,” he told her, “and it’s a good investment. The house will be worth a lot more when it’s fixed up. And, of course, the kids will benefit from this environment — away from crime in the city.”
“Damn, damn. Damn.” She gulped down the remainder of her coffee and stormed out of the room to find a place to sit and sulk.
Sharon had grown up with money and never been without it. You could say she had been upper-middle-class throughout her life. She wasn’t particularly wealthy, but never had the need to work hard. Her part of the family money was in the form of a trust fund; a nice steady income from Grandma Ethel’s investments. When she wanted a luxury item, she’d find a temporary job. Her good looks and smile made it easy.
When she married Tom, then a moderately-successful sales manager of a hardware chain, his pay supplemented her income and they lived well.
Then came the kids, and more expenses. Tom had always yearned to be a fiction writer. He quit his job after selling his first novel. The sale raised their income level at first then, since it was the only thing he’d managed to sell so far, the residual income soon went down again.
Now she was stuck out in the wilds, kids and husband always around and underfoot. On top of the rest of her problems, she had to give up her lover, Alfred. He lived in Toledo, eighty miles away. Knowing Al, he would already have another girlfriend.
“Damn, damn. Damn,” she repeated to herself.
Tom had been born poor. He managed to get through business college while working for “Stanley’s Hardware,” a chain of stores in upper Ohio. With the degree, he had worked his way up to manager status. Although he never had the time, he longed to be a writer of fiction. It had been a lifelong ambition.
When he met Sharon, she had come in for a new microwave and had agreed to an old-fashioned date. That was before Tom acquired a beer gut and was more suave-looking. They hit it off and married. In his spare time he had written a novel, “Peter’s Delight,” which he managed to sell to Randlic House, a large publisher. It became a best-seller.
Two kids in three years wasn’t a record, but still pretty damned fast. With all his wife’s social functions, he had to spend his own free time looking after the children, cutting into his writing time.
Sharon wasn’t the motherly type, leaving most of that to Tom and a part-time nanny. She was active in the PTA and other school social groups, but seemed to have little time for the kids themselves.
When her mother died and their family assets greatly increased, he had seen a chance to try out his hand as a writer. The house seemed perfect for his needs.
The next afternoon, Katy took out the old book, seemingly a diary, and continued reading….
My plans roughly formulated, I went over to visit Joseph at his law office. He wasn’t very busy — or at least not too much so to see me.
“Well, hi there, Ethel. I had about given up on you.” He greeted me with an arm over my shoulder, escorting me to a couch where we both sat. “I’d offer you a drink but I’m all out at the moment. How do you like the new Atlanta?”
After a little small talk, I got down to business. First, to prove my point, I took a few minutes to show him a sampling of highly personal correspondence between myself and Freddy. He was impressed by my apparent power over such an influential Yankee.
“I came here for a reason, Joseph. Not that I’m not glad to see you anyway. The new Military Governor for this district is a friend of mine. As you can see, a very, very close friend. I think I know a way for both of us, you and I, to acquire a little money. If you’re interested, of course?”
“I’m always interested in money. It’s why I’m in business.”
“Well, he told me he’s, now don’t spread it around, but that he’s planning on confiscating the large plantations — taking their land, and with no compensation. That they’re responsible for the ‘Rebellion’ as he calls it. The President himself is behind the plan to simply give it, free and clear, to the Negras.
“He also told me that the Federal government can do that, and that he’s anxious to start the process. It could put you out of a job. Your clients won’t be able to afford you if they’re bankrupt.”
“Jesus! It certainly would cramp my style,” Joseph agreed. “Are you certain? Dead certain?”
“It’s a fact. He’s told me more than once. Several times and in great detail.”
“I don’t think they can do it. I’ve studied law and have been practicing for over ten years. We have certain rights.”
“But do you? The war’s over and we lost. We might not have the same rights as before. After all, Georgia isn’t officially in the Union any longer,” I reminded him. “We’re under Military Law at the moment, not Congressional Law.”
Joseph looked worried, as well he should. What rights did they have as losers? Conditions had changed. What had been a comfortable society for him was now topsy-turvy.
“Wh — What’s your idea?” he asked, slumped over his end of the couch, long legs extended, mind in obvious confusion.
“Well, my idea is that … since I’m a northerner and a dear friend of his, I can buy their property first — for a nominal sum, of course. If I, a northern citizen, already own the land he can’t or won’t be able to confiscate it.”
I outlined my plan, or at least as much of it as he needed to know. “The plantations will remain intact and I’ll sign a secret, written and duly witnessed, agreement to give it back in a few years for the same price — once this stuff has blown over. I’d expect a profit for myself, of course.” I sat up and straightened my hair, moving closer to him in the process — to look him in the eye.
I continued, “As my — according to the paperwork you formulate — employees, the present owners will have to rent, I do mean rent, to freed Negras. It will have to be a part of the secret agreement and will help keep him from confiscating the land.
“I’ll lie the governor that it has already been split up and being sold by myself to the Negras, free and clear. Since the ex-slaves can’t read or understand they, too, will believe that lie. That the land actually belongs to them — though actually only rented by the month.
“The planters will know which slaves are trustworthy and who to rent to. We’ll have to wait until harvest sales for our profit. You know all that legal wrangling and can handle it.”
A huge smile showed he was interested, already thinking lawyer thoughts.
“The planters will actually be managing the land for us, you and I, and collecting the rents,” I continued. “You’ll oversee the process and keep a percentage of the rent money and later sales. The planters, and I of course, will get the rest.
“Everyone will be happy. The Military Governor will have his land reform, the planters’ll keep their land and make a little money from yearly rents, the Negras’ll have land to plant and money to live on, and both you and I’ll make a large profit. See what I mean, honey?”
I moved even closer, grasping his hand and smiling. I could see by a frown that he was working over the details in his head. “And the planters would get title back from me later, all in notarized legal contracts,” I finished, sitting back.
“But the Negroes we rent to will need seeds, equipment, and that sort of thing to get started?” Joseph brought up.
“I’ll bet I can get some of that from the Feds. If not, the planters have much of it lying around unused. Maybe enough for at least one season.” I was glad Joseph had thought of that point. It had slipped my mind — another profit if I played it right. Maybe I could get cash from Freddy to buy the supplies and then use what the planters already had stored away or could buy locally with their own money?
The next morning, Joseph and I used his carriage to visit a sampling of local planters. I found myself bouncing over a dusty stone road. It seemed to go on forever.
“This is the Jefferson plantation,” Joseph told me — he was driving. “We’ve been on it for the last half-hour, and the house is much farther yet.”
“How big is it, honey?” I called him that because we had spent the night together, my seeing no need to go back to that lonely rooming house.
“I don’t know for sure. Ten … twenty-thousand acres or so, I think. Peter Jefferson bought out his neighbor a few years ago, so I have no real idea of the present size. Peter’s one of my clients already and should be easy to handle. He’s also a member of my group, you know, the one I told you about on the way here to Atlanta.”
“Good, that’ll help. If we get him to agree and the others hear, it’ll make the job easier.” I sat back and smiled to myself.
We finally came to the end of the road. Well, not the end exactly, since it went past a large white mansion to a jumble of much smaller buildings farther on. That house was massive, with four wide columns holding up a second floor, two other stories rising above that.
An old man was waiting on the porch. He sported a long white beard and wore an expensive suit. I could see several white children looking out a window behind him. They disappeared as we plodded up the steps to the porch.
“Hi, Peter. How you doing lately? Your rheumatism getting better?”
“Joseph. What’s this sh … crap I hear about the Yankees taking my place?”
He had obviously gotten the word, as I trusted they all had, and wished to waste no time in small talk.
“I fear it’s true, Peter. Official. The Federal Governor holds you and the other planters responsible for the war,” Joseph told him. “This young lady has a solution, if you care to listen. She’s a personal friend of the governor himself, and has no little influence on him.”
He nodded at me, standing beside him. I outlined my plan to Mr. Jefferson.
“And why can’t I simply find me another northerner and do the same with him?”
“I guess you can if you want, but can you trust him and is he a friend of the military governor?” Joseph asked him. “And you know me, and what I represent?”
“Yeah, I’ve known you since you were a kid, and you’re part of that what-you-call-it bunch, Kluxers or something.” He looked back and forth between us, “And it don’t cost me nothing, is that it? I studied those papers you sent me. I don’t know, though.”
“Probably not much. You no doubt have the farming equipment already. Only some time and effort, and you can keep half the rent money. I know, not as much as you made before, but then you’re not getting anything right now and probably wouldn’t for awhile,” I reminded him, keeping a sad look on my face. “At least you’d still be viable.”
“I’ll have to think it over. I’d see my lawyer except that you’re my lawyer. I’ll let you know in a few days. Alright with you?”
“Sure. Take your time. But don’t be surprised if you decide too late. That carpetbagging bastard in charge is anxious to start confiscating,” Joseph reminded him. “He’s only waiting for congressional approval. With the president on his side, a mere formality.”
“I’ll hold him off as long as I can, Mr. Jefferson,” I told him.
We said goodbye and started the long trip to the next customer.
“Do you think he’ll go along with it?” I asked Joseph on the way to the next plantation. “He didn’t sound too convinced to me?”
“I think so. Old Peter’s cantankerous but not a fool. He’ll think about it, ask some of the others, and eventually come around.”
Next, I had to talk to Freddy. He had been there for a couple of weeks already and should be anxious to see me. I knew him, and the more pressure he had on his hands the more he needed my sexual services to release it….
In expectation of school in the morning, Katy put the diary down. Turning off the light, she was soon asleep.
“Damn it, Sharon, will you stop sulking around? It’s annoying?” Tom admonished her. His wife’s depression was getting to him. “Why don’t you take a break and visit friends for a while? Get it out of your system?”
“So now you want to get rid of me, is that it? You’re so in love with this damned place. I suppose I get in your way? All you do all day is sit in that room, pecking away at that frickin’ typewriter.”
“Now, honey, I have to. It’s my life. If I want to make it as a writer, I have to write.”
“I used to be your life — not that damned … machine,” she complained, sobbing. “Maybe I will … spend a couple of weeks in Toledo? You can take care of the kids for awhile.”
“Fine. Go ahead. With your attitude, I’m doing it all anyway.”
Sharon was soon on her way back to the city for two weeks that extended to indefinitely. She moved in with her lover, Alfred. For all practical purposes she left the kids and house to Tom.
“When’s Mommy coming back?” Katy asked her father. “It’s been over two weeks already.”
He wasn’t certain about what to tell her. Sharon had called a couple of nights before. They had argued over the telephone and she’d said she was staying there as long as she wanted — might never be back.
“Something important came up and she has to stay for awhile. Maybe another week or two?” he told his daughter. “I know you miss her. I do too.”
“What kinda thing? With the police? Did they arrest her for something?” Jimmy asked eagerly.
“No, nothing like that. Adult stuff is all. You wouldn’t understand.”
That evening, Katy returned to the diary….
Freddy stood in my bedroom, naked. A wash basin in front of him, he held a wet pair of my drawers in his hand as tears flowed liberally down both cheeks.
“You worthless piece of shit. You can’t even wash my underpants without screwing up.” I stood in front of him, hands on my hips and looking up at a steep angle. “I … told … you … to … clean … them. I … told … you … to … get … out … all … the … filth.” I punctuated every word with a slap to his cheek. “So why is that shit stain still there? You know what to do, you stupid bastard. Lick it out.”
While the Military Governor of two states licked shit, I stood laughing and belittling his efforts.
“Show me, butthole,” I ordered.
He showed me the stain — still there, of course.
“Go get the whip, and I mean the big one this time. You need a sound beating.” I reached up, grabbed him by the ear, and threw him toward the other side of the room. With no wife to worry about anymore, he didn’t mind marks and bruises — as long as they didn’t show when he was dressed.
On hands and knees, Freddy frantically searched the chest of drawers until he found it, crawling back with the whip between his teeth.
I made him lie across the arm of a couch while beating his butt with it until I grew tired from the effort.
“Now get your sorry ass dressed,” I ordered, then changed tone for, “That’s all for now. Fred. We have to talk.”
Dressed, he cautiously sat his sore bottom on the couch next to me.
“How are things going with your job, baby? You know I miss you?” I asked, pouring the traditional wine for us both.
“Damn, you’re getting stronger these days.” He wiggled his bottom, feeling the pain he loved. “Not too well, Ethel. I received word just yesterday. I’m not allowed to simply confiscate the land. That damned congressional committee said ‘no.’
“Those bastards are going to get away with it. The President says he feels like I do, but the courts also say I can’t. I’m to give away public land to the poor, but can’t take any from the planters. My problem is that without their land I don’t have near enough to give away. To try to stop this chaotic wandering. If those people have land of their own or jobs, both wandering and crime will settle down.
“I think there’s bribe money involved in Washington. Those bastard slavers must have paid congressmen to stop harassing them.”
“What would you say if I told you I can get you that property from the plantations, at least much of it?” I asked.
“I’d say you were crazy.” He laughed. “And how would you get it?”
“From the planters. They’re scared that you’ll take it from them. One offered to sell me his for a pittance. He thinks you’ll take it anyway. Thousands of acres for a cheap rate.”
“It galls me to give the bastards money, but maybe the government WOULD let me buy it from them.” He was thinking. “A large part of my job is to stabilize all these people running around causing trouble. Giving them land is a good way to do that. But I hate to hand money to the planters. What would the president say? He’d be all over me, my political career ruined.”
“Not if you gave ME the money and I handed it to them for you. Under the table, with no one knowing. The President and your party would never have to know.”
“Uh, how much land are we talking about here?” he asked, seeming to calm a bit.
I could almost hear his little brain clicking away.
“As much as you want. I know for a fact that I could get you, say, twenty-thousand acres within the week. And, once the word gets around, much more later.”
He made a momentous decision. Maybe his S&M session and our relationship had something to do with it — who knows?
“You get me the land and I’ll pay a fair price for it.” Frederic the Governor made his decision.
“Can’t. I don’t have that much money, Fred. You know that.” I laughed. “You get me the money to work with, and then I’ll use it to buy land.”
“Oh, I forgot, Ethel. In my job, money flows like water. I forget real people don’t have it lying around like I do.”
“Which reminds me, Freddy. You owe me some. I’m a business woman, you know?”
He gave me money for the rent and some more for myself before he left.
The next morning I went to Joseph’s office. Delicate negotiations were progressing. Two of the planters had already agreed to sign their land over to me for a symbolic one Federal Greenback for each 160 acre quarter-section.
The papers were signed and notarized, the land mine as soon as I paid them and signed the paperwork. I’d affirmed to sell it back to them at the same rate within ten years and we had agreed that they would use it in the ways specified earlier.
Of course, I would hardly be around there in ten years — or even ten weeks, for that matter. I planned to stay only long enough to get my stake and out before any Federal Investigators got around to checking on their money.
A couple of days and planters later, I went to see Freddy again. That time at his office.
“I need $100,000 to start, Freddy,” I told him. “I’ve got the deals set up already. For your money, I can even find local Negras to farm it, saving you the trouble. All you have to do is give me the currency. I’m prepared to sign the titles over to you, the new farmers, or the government,” I told him. “Whichever you prefer. I can have the titles for you by tomorrow night.
“You’ll have to have part of it surveyed yourself, but they’ll already be working it before then. In most cases, all you’ll need to do is okay existing boundaries set up by the rebel government.”
“I don’t know if that’s legal, Ethel?” He looked a little perplexed. “I mean letting them have it before it’s even surveyed by us.”
“Don’t forget, dear. You’re the one who can make it legal. You’re the Military Governor. A stroke of the pen and it will be so. It isn’t as though it has to be approved by anyone. Your friend, the president, will back you up, won’t he? He did tell you that you’re the boss here?”
“Yeah, guess you’re right, Ethel. I’m the boss.” He grinned widely. Fred offered me a check, which I refused.
“You, of all people, know the banks down here have either gone under or can’t be trusted. I better have cash, Federal notes or gold. Gold is better because everyone trusts it. It’ll make it easier for me to buy the land for you. Some of these rebels will balk at even accepting federal dollars.”
“That’ll take days. We don’t have a lot of gold lying around here in Atlanta.”
“That’s all right, Fredric, I can wait,” I told him. Damned right I could wait.
A week later, the gold and currency started rolling in from Washington banks, so fast I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t even know what to do with it all. I couldn’t put it in my two-room rented living quarters. The gold alone might cave in the flooring. Ha-ha.
With most of the land costing only a symbolic dollar a quarter-section, the rest of the gold for its payment was all mine, something like a 1,000 percent profit.
And, to cap it off, Joseph didn’t know about the major scam. He thought our profits were to be taken out of upcoming crop sales.
I rented an empty building near the main police station and paid an honest-looking police sergeant to keep an eye on it. Then, I sent the money and gold over at night and stored it behind shelving in the basement. I didn’t really trust the place but figured it would do for awhile. Later I would split it up into multiple caches, not completely trusting any one hiding place.
Joseph was busy, too much so to keep an eye on my activities. He had to supervise over a dozen planters and their renting to former slaves. Those efforts would eventually lead to even more profit for our benefit. Ha-ha.
At least the planters still thought of it as their property, not knowing it was already — despite that worthless promise — signed over to the Federal Government.
When things seemed to be going well, I took time for a trip to New York City.
Note:: To simplify Ethel’s schemes, she has two of them going. The first, using locally respected Lawyer Joseph, is to make deals with large planters to sort of put their land in storage then, when things in the South are settled down, sell it back to them.
Fred, the Military Governor, is trying to confiscate that same land and turn it over to freed slaves. Instead the planters, on their own, agree to rent or lease that land to the slaves. As sharecroppers, the slaves will pay the planters a portion of their crops. The planters, Joseph, and Ethel will share in that profit.
The other, much larger scheme is for Ethel, supposedly with temporary ownership, instead selling the land to the Federal government through Fred. In short, she pays a dollar for each 160 acre package and sells the same for $2,000 to Fred, free and clear. Then, she plans to disappear with all the gold and currency, leaving Joseph, Fred, southern planters, and a lot of pissed off Negroes behind.
A few of my previous customers in D.C. had been involved in the stock market. I brought as much of my cash with me as I could easily handle — meaning a small woman like I could carry — thinking that investing would be my best bet, rather than letting it accumulate in Atlanta. A stack of common stock certificates would be easier to leave with than a huge amount of gold and currency and, believe me, both were coming in fast from Fred. At that point, I’d accumulated over $300,000 in Federal funds — mostly profit, hee-hee.
The more planters I conned, the more the others clamored for the privilege of being fleeced.
“So, we’re agreed, Mr. Samson. You buy me what you call common stock in companies you pick and I turn over my gold to you. You’ll also keep the certificates for me until I come for them?”
“Yes, ma’am, and glad to have your business.” He was enthused with the amount of currency I gave him, over fifty-thousand dollars. “And I’ll send someone down to Atlanta as soon as possible for your gold.”
I had promised him more money and gold to invest for me, but he would have to come to Atlanta to get it, bringing a large guarded wagon for the task. That would save me any number of trips to New York.
I made the same deal with several other stock brokers, splitting the risk. Once they came down to Atlanta and signed for the gold, safeguarding it was their responsibility — just like money in the bank.
When I returned to Atlanta in November, Joseph finally caught up to me. Taking money from him was almost an afterthought. He had outlived his usefulness and could keep it, for all I cared. Compared to the Federal money, his was chickenfeed. His last act on my behalf would be to take any blame when the bubble burst.
Of course, he didn’t even know about the money from property sales and believed the bit about giving the land back later. After all he had, ha-ha, possession of signed and witnessed papers to that effect.
“Damn, Ethel, honey. We’re making out good with this plan. The Federals backed off a couple of weeks ago. It’s a relief not to have them sniffing around,” Joseph told me, happily.
What that poor lawyer didn’t know was that Freddy had been trying to get something on the planters in order to confiscate their land for his purposes. Now that he was getting it anyway, why bother? He’d backed off from annoying the planters.
Freddy had to look good to his friend, the president, and other legislators. To do that, it was necessary to bring order to his district by settling people down in one place and fighting crime. To someone in Freddy’s position, money was only another tool — such as Union troops. It was something to use in getting his job done.
“Glad to hear it, Joseph. When is the money going to start coming in? I could use some about now?” I lied.
“That’s one thing I wanted to do, give you your share of what I’ve collected so far.” He handed over an envelope. “Not much right now, but when the crops are fully harvested and sold we’ll get much more.” He beamed.
“Thanks. This will pay my rent at least.” I didn’t bother counting it. “I can’t wait. A nice steady income for a change.”
I waited until I had about a million in gold and currency, and it didn’t take more than another couple of weeks. I knew enough not to be greedy and, to tell you the truth, the pace and pressure were killing me.
After I had the million and it collected by the stock brokers, I rented a large carriage, complete with driver, then loaded it with the rest and headed for New York.
It took a month to liquidate most of my gold. Finished, I picked up my stock certificates. Common stock was like cash and could be sold in any large city. The rest of the gold fit in the back of the new carriage.
Let the cards fall as they may, I was out of it.
Eventually I ended up in this small town in Ohio. A rear wheel on my carriage broke a spoke because of the weight and I had to stop for repairs. Upon reflection, it seemed as good a place as any, and about as far from Atlanta, Georgia as I could get. Which brings me pretty much up to the present. Selling some of the stock in Toledo, I ordered a house built. A large one to fit my new status.
Much later, feeling frisky, I bought my way into a fledgling horseless-carriage industry. New companies like “Ford” and “Oldsmobile” seemed to me to have potential, along with the idea of riding in such a vehicle.
Caught up. Now, all I have left is to explain those damned bloody pages….
Katy read until early in the morning, totally engrossed in the diary. Eventually, she switched to a novel for a spate of light reading before going to bed. Even her mother had no idea how Great-Great-Grandma Ethel had made her money. Here her Granny had been a big crook, and nobody knew but little Katy.
It seemed against her nature, but she couldn’t wait to tell her brother and show him the book. For the first time she could remember, she had something he might be interested in reading. Unlike Katy, reading was one of Jimmy’s worse subjects in school.
Jimmy beat her to it. He was passing her room on his way down to breakfast when he saw the notebook lying on her bed.
That’s mine, he reminded himself. It was in my bundle.
He picked the diary up and took it back to his room. The boy wasn’t about to let his sister steal it from him. Jimmy hid it under his dresser where he had also hidden the revolver and old photos. He had cleaned the revolver up as much as he could, even shining and replacing the cartridges. The little derringer was still under his pillow, all but forgotten.
Like most young children, he didn’t have much of an attention span. Those things were old news. He had found many other treasures in the attic since that day. He’d even built a secret bat-cave up there, finding a cape somewhat like the superhero wore.
When Katy accused him of stealing the diary from her, he denied it.
“I haven’t seen that old thing, and it’s mine anyway,” he reminded her. “Maybe Helen took it. Probably full of dirty pictures or something.”
Helen was a part-time maid his father hired to come in three times a week to do the laundry and cleaning. She was a middle-aged local woman looking to make a little extra money. Helen didn’t do very much, and wasn’t really expected to.
Tom spent most of his time in his home office writing while the kids were at school, and rarely even saw the maid. She normally left about the time they came home, so they saw little of her either.
With her schoolwork and new friends, Katy soon forgot about the notebook. She knew that once her brother forgot about the subject she’d get it back eventually.
Their semi-private lake had been cleaned out by mid-spring and the lawn fixed up. Now that they didn’t have to worry about stepping on nails and old boards, the children spent more time outside.
A colony of black snakes had been cleared out. The reptiles had helped keep Katy inside and been an attraction to Jimmy. Having become familiar with and named each one, he missed them.
The most important happening for the family was in early April, when their mother finally returned. She was driving a large new Cadillac, and it was filled with expensive clothing.
She even brought a few presents for the kids. “You’ll never know how much I missed you,” she told them.
Actually she had spent most of her remaining inheritance on her boyfriend before breaking up with him. No longer being able to afford an apartment of her own, she was forced to return to her family.
To Tom, she seemed more like a stranger encroaching on his life. Of course he had no allusions as to her faithfulness.
Many arguments ensued while the children were in school or playing outside. The latest one was over her, on a rare cleaning spree, finding a pistol under Jimmy’s pillow.
“Is this the way you take care of my children?” She confronted him, shoving the weapon in his face, her own livid as she accused him. “Are they so afraid of you they need guns to protect themselves?”
“I had no idea he had it.” Tom took the gun and examined it. “It’s ancient. I wonder if he got it at school? Maybe traded for something?”
“I just wonder if he has more. I’m afraid to check. The poor boy might have booby traps up there, to protect himself from you. A fine home you run where even little kids are afraid to sleep at night.” She sneered at her husband, as if urging him to hit her, then left the room.
Tom hurried upstairs to search Jimmy’s room. He noticed the stepladder in the boy’s closet, leading to a dark hole in the ceiling.
That must be where he found the gun? Tom figured. He, himself, had never gotten around to checking the attic out. He figured that as old as the house was it would be full of discarded junk. He searched the bedroom and found Jimmy’s stash of notebook, photos and large revolver. Not knowing what to do with them, and curious, he carried them downstairs to his office.
“Well, what did you find up there, an arsenal?” Sharon was right behind him.
He showed her the revolver.
“I found one more. They were probably in the attic,” Tom told her. “I’ll have to go up and search the place. God only knows what’s been stored up there in the last hundred years. And it had to come from your relatives, not mine.”
For a brief period, the air turned blue with accusations and threats.
When she left the room, he put the pistol and revolver down on a corner of his desk. Curious, he checked over the daguerreotypes.
Like Jimmy, Tom noticed the resemblance right off. The woman in most of the photos was a spitting image of his wife and an older version of Katy. Her family must have dominant genes in that respect, he thought.
The others were unknown to him and probably not public figures in their time, at least none he remembered seeing in his studies. He couldn’t recognize many of the locations, which wasn’t surprising, either. There were a few of that same house, looking new in the photos and without the garage.
Tom also recognized the photo of the basement, since he had been down there several times by then. The horse-collar was gone and the table moved, but he recognized the section of wall. That portion had a different brick pattern, as though it had been built separately to completely shut off a portion of the room. He’d never given it much thought, supposing an old cistern used to store water or something of that sort on the other side.
He put the photos in a desk drawer where light wouldn’t hit them, and turned to the notebook.
Tom immediately recognized the stains as dried blood, or at least suspected it. He had seen bloodstains on a book before, when he’d bled on a schoolbook and couldn’t get it off. Being a much faster reader than his daughter, it didn’t take him as long to get caught up with the story….
25 October 1920
I returned home the other afternoon to see an automobile parked behind the house. It was a bright-red roadster. A small part of the front was showing as I drove up the winding driveway. Cautious, I took a little pistol out of the car and, checking the load on both barrels, shoved it into the top of a stocking under my garter. I was expecting no visitors — especially a hidden one.
Entering the house as usual, I hung my jacket and went into the living room. A man was sitting on one of the stuffed chairs. It took me a few moments to recognize an older Joseph the lawyer. He held a huge revolver pointed at me.
“I finally found you, you heartless bitch.” He raised his weapon to center on my face. “Come in and sit down. You try to run and you’re dead,” he warned me.
Feeling weak, I sat as he ordered. As he stood to approach me, I could see him shaking in anger. He came over, lifted my head up to look me in the eye and spit in my face, followed by a hard slap on the cheek.
“You left me to take the blame, and almost get killed,” he screamed, slapping me again. Returning to his seat, he cocked the hammer on his weapon and aimed it at me again. I wiped my face and stared back.
“After all these years, you still look lovely,” Joseph told me. “But that’s going to change.”
We sat staring at each other for at least a couple of minutes.
“What happened? Why are you so angry? I had to leave, but you kept all the money. It’s not my fault if you got caught later. You’re a grown man and should have known when to quit.” I forced a grin. “It’s hardly my fault if you didn’t.”
“Bullshit, Ethel. I was not only blamed for our scheme but for your larger one, too. One I had no idea was happening. You left me to take the blame for the whole damned mess.”
He looked ready to cry. I knew that, as emotional as he was getting, if I kept my head I could handle him.
“Why don’t you tell me all about it, baby?” I asked, sympathetically. “Just what happened that you blame me for?”
“Everything went well for years, eight or nine in fact.” He stopped to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief. “Your friend left after a couple of years, sent back to Washington, and a new governor came in. He too left when Georgia returned to being a state.
“The trouble started when a Negro was elected to the state senate. When a planter tried to evict one of the tenants, called sharecroppers by then, the man went to the senator to complain. They checked and found out what we were doing. The government had still assumed those people owned their farms, and didn’t know they were only renting.
“The state came down hard on the planters, who excused themselves by saying that you were the owner. The planters then became livid when they found out that you had sold the property out from under them, to the hated federals — and that they weren’t about to get it back, either. Of course, you were nowhere to be found. As your representative and lawyer, I was.
“My excuses of working for you fell through when it came out that I was the only one with the money, and no one had seen you for many years. They asked how you could be involved without receiving any of the illegal profits?
“Now the Feds are looking for me, blaming me as the instigator of the whole damned thing. They even accuse me of killing you to get you out of the way. I put up bail and have been running ever since.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” I said. “ I thought you were a big boy and could handle it. Guess I was wrong.” I was getting myself together. “Since you were supposedly at fault, why don’t you let me give you some of the big money?” I offered with a smile. “There’s plenty for both of us. It might be more satisfying than killing me?”
I could see him thinking it over. Probably that he could as easily kill me after getting the money as before. Joseph was, after all is said and done, a simple man and easy to figure out.
“Where is it?”
“Down in the basement. You put the gun away and we can go down and get your share, enough to last for the rest of your life.”
“Let’s go.” He stood up, still watching me closely.
“Put the gun down first. I don’t trust you holding that big monster on little old me,” I sort of simpered. “Leave it on the table there. A big guy like you can handle a little woman, can’t you?
My heart fluttered, sweat running down my dress from my armpits as I could see him mulling the matter over in his mind. Finally, greed won out over vengeance. He laid the weapon down on a table and we went to the basement, me in the lead.
Now, on a certain section of wall there’s a brick that when pushed in and the wall shoved hard, will open a secret doorway. Not completely trusting banks, or bank vaults for that matter, I keep stocks, gold, and other securities in that room. Besides, if I have need for a quick egress, I’ll have something to take with me.
I showed him how to open the door, while I stood back. He went in first. I came behind, holding the lantern. By the time he was inside and turned around, I was also holding my little pistol.
Not feeling any need for further conversation, I shot him twice in the face, right between those wide eyes. I’m not a large woman and if I had done it upstairs would have had trouble carrying a body around, not to mention the blood to clean up.
Then I simply closed the door and went back upstairs. The next day, I searched his red automobile and removed anything that might be incriminating or point to him or me, and sold it to a friend who needed one.
In the excitement, I got blood all over myself by pulling the body around in order to close the door in the wall. I didn’t even notice until writing in this book, but I had smeared the stuff all over the inside cover and first few pages. Since they were illegible, and to keep the stink down, I tore them out and decided to write from the beginning — in a more legible format.
It was a largely wasted effort, since I’ve just now realized how incriminating this journal could be. Better to get rid of it and the weapons. Better yet, save them for posterity. I’ll find some place to hide them for future generations to find. They should get a kick out of my experiences.
Excited by the lure of fortune, Tom hurried down to the basement, rushing past his wife who was watching television. Since reading the diary and remembering that photograph, he knew right where to go. The key-brick was fairly easy to find and shove in, but he couldn’t get the wall to move, only feel a little loose at one corner. The mechanism might be rusty, he figured, shoving harder.
Finally, almost giving up, he wedged a sliver of wood alongside the depressed key-brick, holding it in place. Then Tom found a long wrecking bar and jammed it between the concrete floor and the wall. He had to add a piece of iron piping for leverage, but finally forced the wall to move an inch.
After that first jerk, it moved easier as he forced the metal fulcrum downward. On the other side of the open space he could see a portion of a human skeleton dressed in rotted clothing. Joseph?
A cabinet stood along an opposite wall, itself supporting a large metal box. What looked like a pile of dirty bricks sat on the floor. The gold?
Excited, Tom stepped over the skeleton to face the cabinet. He tried to open the box. It was rusted shut, so he hit it with his wrecking-bar, breaking the lid loose. Inside lay a thick wad of crumbling paper. His hopes rose as he found it to be only an outer wrapping; oiled paper, now stiff and flaky with age.
The box was too heavy to easily carry, so he went back out to a worktable in the other room and found an electric trouble-light with a long cord. Propping it up over the container, he wiped his hands on his pants.
From the diary, he thought he knew what was inside but didn’t want to take a chance of destroying them if they were crumbling.
Hearing a noise, he looked back to see Sharon had come in behind him. After glancing at her, he worked slowly on the package with a pocket knife, scrapping, flaking and prying at the stiff wrapping.
It finally cracked down the middle, coming loose to reveal a stack of faded papers. The gold of pasted seals glowed at the bottom of the one on top. He could barely read the words, “Ford Motor Company” at the top of the page. It was stock in Henry Ford’s first successful company.
“Those must be worth millions,” he heard Sharon exclaim. “How did you find them?”
Tom was still flabbergasted at his find.
“Many, many millions,” he whispered, not daring to touch them in fear they would turn to dust. “We can live the rich life for sure now,” Tom told her, happily. He turned to face his wife.
She now held the old revolver from his office in both hands and had lost her smile.
“We?” She growled at him. “You mean me. Me and the kids. Why should I share it with you?” Her thoughts were of sailing into the sunset, to places like Monte Carlo and the French Riviera. Her and some new lover. Those were her thoughts as she jerked on a rusty trigger.
The resulting explosion threw Tom back against the cabinet that held the strongbox. His head hit the edge, causing a momentary blackout. That enforced pause was just long enough to save himself the memory of seeing a blast of flame, metal fragments and shreds of her right hand tear his wife’s face off as the rusty revolver exploded, the metal of the cylinder weakened by rust and time.
For long minutes, he stood silently, groggy and not able to think. Tom could barely hold on to the cabinet while standing with shaky legs — unable to think of what to do.
No tears came to his eyes when he looked down at his wife’s sprawled body. Senses returning, he saw her husk sprawled over the old skeleton and remembered Ethel and the diary. Like grandmother, like granddaughter, he thought.
Recovered, using stiff shaking fingers, Tom carefully peeled several stock certificates off the top of the stack. He next picked up an extremely heavy darkened brick, revealing a shiny yellow one under it.
Closing the secret door behind himself, leaving both bodies inside, he walked slowly up the stairs — to a new life.