The Last Time—Another S.B. Middlebrook Short Story
Up from Tupelo
It was freezing and windy outside, only twenty-six degrees in November 2015, when Jennifer Marie Brown’s Uncle Ross finally arrived at her West 141st Street brownstone in Manhattan. She had been waiting and watching for him all morning, and when she saw him, her face lit up, shedding all its former signs of worry. But as he got closer to her building, his discontent became visible. The burden he was carrying was a heavy one, indeed, and watching him carry it somehow brought only loads of love to the surface, and the love she felt for him brought tears to her eyes. She wiped them away. For just one moment, she smiled, before opening the door of her heart to receive the sadness he was bringing.
Ross took his usual long strides up the front steps, scaling them two at a time. There weren't many things that could get him to come up to New York in the cold. Especially since he'd finally opened a Facebook account and had learned to text and email his beloved niece to find out how she was doing. Jenny had talked to him, so she already knew he was bringing news that was so bad he felt he had to be near her, to comfort her, after transporting it all the way up to New York City from down in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Now on his 20th visit to New York, even after Jenny welcomed him into her apartment, it took a while for forty-nine year-old Ross Brown to thaw out. It didn't matter that it was toasty warm inside her spacious third-floor home. He just was not used to the icy cold weather of what he still called an icy cold city, so he still had on his coat and gloves several minutes after coming inside. He couldn't fathom the kind of warmth Jenny told him she'd found in the city, and even while standing in front of the roaring fire she had going in the fireplace, he was still complaining about the cold. Huffing and blowing on his rugged hands while rubbing them together and holding them close to the flames, sweat was starting to form on his brow. Jenny knew that meant he wasn't still cold. At least not physically, but some kind of coldness was stuck inside his heart, and the words he was searching for were probably frozen inside him too. Words that were taking their time thawing out.
Jenny's uncle finally started shedding his coat and scarf, and the news he came to bring started tumbling out of his mouth. “I know you didn’t know her,” he said. "But that was how she wanted it." After shedding himself of his news, he walked away from the fire and began staring out through the same floor-to-ceiling living room windows where Jenny had been fifteen minutes earlier. He looked up at a sky that didn't have a cloud in sight, but he still couldn't stop them from forming in his voice. He turned toward her. “But Jen, when somebody goes out like that," he said, "in such a shocking, brutal, and coldblooded way . . . like she did. Well. I thought it was best for me to come up here . . . to tell you in person.” He looked into her eyes. “You already know I never liked her," he said. "But that's been all over and done with. Years ago. And even when I hated her, I never wanted nothing like this to happen to her. She . . . she had some goodness in her. I learned that, even though I never said it before. When she gave yo’ daddy full custody of you? Well. That's when I knew. She really loved you. You know. In her own way.”
For a long moment, her hands in her lap, Ross Brown's niece sat staring at them. It was final now. She'd never get the chance she'd always wanted. Even dreamed about. But the harsh meaning of her uncle's message was now real, and she knew the dream was over. All that was left now was what was coming next. It was the look on Ross's face that told her there was more he had to say, but she decided to wait. She'd let him ask her the question she knew he was going to ask.
“Maybe I could have loved her too," she said, rising from her seat. She walked across the room and stood next to her uncle, a man who towered over her at 6'4" and 185 pounds. He scooped her up into a big bear hug. All 5'4" of her small,120-pound frame. Wearing her waist-length curly brown locks in a ponytail that day wasn’t why she started feeling like she was still four years old, still living in Tupelo. It was having her Uncle Ross holding her. It never failed to surprise her how the man who looked exactly like her father always made her feel like a little girl. “But. Uncle Ross." She wiped away several big tears from her cheeks, keeping them from falling on her uncle’s freshly starched white shirt. “I just never got a chance to know her," she said. "I just wish she had given me a chance to know her."
When Ross finally released her, she walked back across the room and sat down in her favorite spot on her three-year-old, berry-colored, leather living-room sofa. It was her first piece of real furniture—a law-school graduation gift from her dad. Sitting there usually made Attorney Jennifer Marie Brown feel better, no matter what was going on in her life. But today the sofa's magic wasn't working. She looked down and started picking at one of the frayed areas on the right knee of her brand new blue jeans. “I respected her you know. Even when I got old enough, and Grandma finally told me the truth; the whole story. In spite of everything I knew, I still respected her. Because she was the woman who gave me life. Since she didn't have to do that, I think. I think it means she loved me.”
Ross looked and felt out of place, every time he visited Harlem. His brother’s expensive brownstone building had never and would never feel like home to him. It still amazed him that his seventy-seven year-old, still youthful-looking-and-acting mother, and his twenty-nine year-old niece actually lived there. He couldn't believe they didn't feel out of place living in separate 3,000 square-foot apartments, with private terraces, private gardens, and private back yards. His brother had made sure Queenette and Jenny Marie were surrounded by and enveloped inside a massive amount of store-bought elegance—what Ross saw as his twin brother's way of showing love. Still, it would always be next to impossible for him to accept that his mother and his niece moved away from Tupelo, ten years ago, to live in New York City. Even though they were in a prime residential neighborhood, Ross was sure he would never get used to it. Shaking his head while mumbling to himself, he uttered the same words that always came to mind whenever he visited. "I can't believe two Mississippi country-bred women like you and Mama could actually like living here, in all this," he said, "on the Upper Manhattan side of New York City."
He turned around and looked his beautiful niece in the eyes.
“I’ll go,” she said, still waiting for what she knew was coming. “I'll go to the home-going out of respect. Even though her family has never included me in their family, I’ll go. Out of respect, and because you want me to go. But . . . I’ll have to think long and hard, if the Chief asks . . . what we both know he's probably going to ask. I’ll have to think long and hard about helping him again. Even now.” She had unlocked the door for Uncle Ross. Now all he needed to do was to turn the knob, and walk in.
“He’ll have to ask you this time,” Ross said, looking up again at the sky. “He wanted me to do it, but I said no. I told him he'd have to do his own dirty work this time. After that I told him this was the last time I was coming up here in the cold of winter to visit anybody or to do anything."
Fried Chicken and Memories
Jenny phoned her grandmother with the awful news. As usual, nothing shocking ever was able to shock Queenette Brown. "Uh huh," was all she said when her granddaughter replayed to her the chilling news Ross brought up to New York from Tupelo. "I'm sorry to hear it," she said. "Real sorry to hear such a thing could happen. To anybody."
She wasn't sure why she felt better after telling her grandma everything Ross told her. All she knew was it made her feel like everything in her world was still okay. Like the grief inside her soul had moved over a bit and made room for the joy she felt from having her uncle and her grandmother together once again. Feeling stronger, she warned Queenette that her other son was still grumbling about them living in New York. "He's on his way up to your apartment now," she said. "Still grumbling." Queenette just laughed.
“He’ll stop grumbling once he starts smelling this fried chicken I'm making," Ross's mother said. "I promised him I'd cook his favorite supper for lunch, and I already got it started. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, peach cobbler, and iced tea with lemon. You come on up too, baby, okay? Round noon."
"When I talked to him last night, he said he was bringing some bad news, and now that we know what happened, we both know what else it means. You know what he got to ask you."
"I know, Grandma. But he didn't ask. He said he told the Chief no this time."
"Oh yeah? Well, he told me on the phone last night this was his last time coming to ‘visit country folk who don’t belong in this big old cold city.' But saying 'last time' don't always mean last time. When he gets here? Won't be easy to tell him I already invited his family up for Christmas, and his wife already said yes.” She laughed. "Wish I'd told you to tell him that for me!"
“Nah. Your second-born twin needs to hear that from you, not me. Bye, Grandma.”
Jenny was sure her Uncle Ross had been perpetually irritated since, at age ten, Queenette told him he was born two minutes after his brother, Malcolm. He would calm down, she thought, after lunch, no matter what surprise was waiting for him at his mother's apartment. A good meal always made Ross feel better, and nobody could make better fried chicken than Queenette Brown. Not even the Colonel.
Alone again in her apartment putting the finishing touches on a real-estate prospectus she'd prepared for her dad, tears kept stinging at Jenny's eyes. Queenette's first-born twin, Malcolm, was looking into yet another property acquisition and Jenny was in-house counsel for his growing medical practice. She completed projects for her dad from home on days when she was doing work for him, even though she ran a legal practice of her own that occupied a whole floor inside Malcolm's Manhattan medical building. After placing the finished prospectus inside her work attaché case, she called and talked to her dad. Telling him what Ross told her, she allowed her tears to come as long as she felt like crying. A few minutes after speaking with Malcolm, she called her boyfriend to tell him everything Ross came to New York to tell her.
A lot of sadness was hiding out somewhere deep down inside, but sharing the news with people she loved was helping. Jenny stretched out on the berry sofa in her living room to try to jump-start the couch's magic; to invite her boyfriend's words of comfort to soak into her spirit. She was doing her best not to go too deeply into mourning for a woman she never knew and had never met. One day, she thought, one day soon she would have to tell Ethan the whole crazy-weird story of her life, because the relationship they had seemed to be holding a strong spark of promise. A twelve-year NYC transplant from Texas, Ethan, a software engineer, was smart, funny, and understanding. He hadn't had an easy life either, and had grown up overcoming serious challenges that gave them something in common. Something that made them feel connected. They'd been together for just five months, and she knew the ultimate test of where they were headed would be his reaction to learning her deepest and darkest secret. The seeing. The thing that usually ushered in the beginning of the end for every romantic relationship she'd ever had.
Taking a deep breath, Jenny allowed her mind to take her back twenty-five years—to the day she first met the Chief. She and her grandmother were still living in Tupelo, and her then twenty-five year-old Uncle Ross was still living with his mother. Uncle Ross was her hero, mainly because he was the only man in her life who showed his love for her every day. But it was also because he drove a big, shiny red truck, back and forth, day-after-day, from Mississippi to Tennessee.
Many evenings when Ross got home, he’d lift four-year-old Jenny high up into the air and would say something like, “Lil Jen,” I'm glad you like my truck. I like it too. But I don't want you to ever drive a big truck like this. Know why?" The question always meant it was time for the rhyme the two of them said together, where Jenny would chime in to help him answer his own question. "It makes you smell real bad, makes your mama really mad, with smelly diesel on your skin, you have to shower again and again!" They'd hug while laughing together, then Ross would undoubtedly say something like, "But for me? Aw, it ain’t so bad. I'm home every day and I make good money too. So I'm ma' keep on driving." Some days he'd add, "So when Mama starts fussing at me ‘bout driving this truck, I'll just wink at you, because you and me? We have an understanding 'bout it. Okay?” Jenny always winked back to signal her okay.
Back then, Queenette Brown hardly ever let a day pass without telling her son she wanted more for him. That’s why he came home every day defending his career. His mother wanted him to be more ambitious—more like his twin brother, Malcolm. Hardly ever home, little Jenny’s dad was away, in a place called Manhattan, completing his residency for medical school. In another year, when she turned five, he became the full-fledged primary-care doctor he was today.
Her "Seeing" Power
The day Jenny first met the Chief was the same day she discovered she had “seeing powers.” Uncle Ross hadn't made it home yet that day, but, in her mind's eye, four-year-old Jenny had “seen” and heard loud footsteps pounding on the big gray planks of the front porch. She wasn’t even looking out at the front porch when she saw and heard what she saw and heard, and, even though she was only four years old, she knew what she’d seen and heard was something that was going to happen. She didn't know how she knew, she just knew. She saw a man’s legs, his blue pants, his shiny mouth, and his brown shoes with money on them, and they were coming to her grandmother's front door. Not right away. But they were coming.
What she'd seen had come to her in pictures. She had a camera and was only three when she learned how to take pictures. At four, somehow, she knew the pictures that kept coming into her head weren't really pictures. That day, she yelled from the living room to the kitchen. “You gonna have to go to the front door, Grandma, in a little while! A black man with a shiny mouth is coming to your door, and he's wearing blue pants and brown shoes with money on top!”
Her grandmother, Queenette Brown, had stopped chopping lettuce only for a minute to listen. She was making the family's favorite green salad—with lettuce, cucumbers and avocados, to go along with food that had the house smelling like home—fried chicken, baked sweet potatoes, corn bread and collard greens with little crispy pieces of bacon on the bottom of the pot. Jenny's grandma had a smile in her voice when she yelled into the living room.
"Lord, child," she laughed. "You way to smart for your age! A black man with a shiny mouth, blue pants, and brown shoes with money on top?” She laughed out loud again as she kept working. Whenever she was in the kitchen cooking, she didn’t like any interruptions. “You go to the door for me, okay, Jenny May? Ask who it is, then come tell Grandma.”
Jenny yelled toward the kitchen again. “He’s not there, Grandma! Not yet!”
Her Doll, Miss Livingston
Jenny was glad the man wouldn’t be at the door for a while because she was busy braiding Miss Livingston’s silky blonde hair. That doll had long, curly hair, just like the lady’s hair. She would never forget the pretty white lady that visited her and her grandmother that one time. A few days after the lady left, Grandma gave her the doll and said Miss Livingston had come to live with them. Forever. Jenny loved Miss Livingston and thought she always looked beautiful in her long, pink sleeping gown. For as long as Jenny could remember, Miss Livingston had stood on top of Grandma Queenette’s upright mahogany piano. They were a team—the doll and the piano. Together, the two of them were the centerpiece of the pink-walled living room, and Jenny loved them both. The piano, because her grandmother was teaching her how to play it. And Miss Livingston, because that doll seemed to want nothing more out of life but to keep watch over her grandmother’s treasured piano.
Miss Livingston belonged there. She was part of the room, and her sleepers matched the big, beautiful, pink living room couch. It had big pink pillows all over it, and Jenny felt like she was sitting on a big, lovely pink marshmellow whenever her grandmother gave her permission to sit there so that she could braid Miss Livingston’s hair. A very difficult task, as soon as she plaited a plait, it would un-plait, all by itself. Like magic. Jenny was glad her hair didn’t do that. Once her grandmother plaited her two big brown plaits that traveled all the way down to her waist, they stayed plaited for days—until grandma found the time she said she needed to “comb so much hair again.” But today, her grandmother had given her two small red rubber bands, so this time Miss Livingston’s plaits were going to stay plaited too.
Miss Livingston's hair was done, and Uncle Ross was home from work and had finished his second helping of peach cobbler desert by the time the man came walking up to the door. He looked exactly the same as in Jenny's head pictures. He had the same long legs, was wearing blue pants and the same shoes she'd seen too, and, just as she'd heard, his footsteps were pounding hard on the porch, making planks squeak and squawk as he came to the front door.
The Man in the Money Shoes: Leroy Geiger
It was Uncle Ross who went to the door that evening, and the suppertime visitor turned out to be Leroy Geiger. He was the thirty-five year-old son of one Grandma Queenette's long-time neighbors. Grandma had once run her own in-home after-school and daycare business, and Leroy Geiger was one of the children she once kept every day. From the time he was born, while his mother worked, he stayed at Grandma Queenette’s daycare or after-school care, until he was seventeen.
The man wearing the money shoes was invited to sit at the dinner table with them, and he was eating peach cobbler all while he told Jenny who he was. He said he was a police man, and that he lived in Memphis, Tennessee. He said he loved Queenette Brown and thought of her as his second mother. She had taken care of him, he said, all the days when he was a growing boy, because his mother had to go to work every day. He talked about how he had been working real hard lately and hadn’t been home to see his Tupelo family in three years. Then he told Jenny the last time he saw her she was drinking all her meals from a pink baby bottle. Jenny laughed. Then she decided she liked the man who said he would be honored if she would call him "Uncle Leroy." Tall and skinny, he was a hard stepper, and that meant he was strong, and he had a gold tooth in his mouth that sparkled whenever he smiled. He also seemed to know how to dress real nice. To go with the nice brown shirt he had on that day, Leroy Geiger was wearing dark blue pants and shiny brown penny loafers—and he had taken the time to put shiny red copper pennies in the little slits on top of his shoes.
At twenty-nine, Jenny hated her "gift” and hadn’t used it in a few years, on purpose. “Seeing” is what her grandmother called her gift that, for many years, had felt to her more like a curse. And now her Uncle Ross had come all the way up to New York City to give her fair warning she would soon be asked to use the gift again.
Leroy Geiger, her Uncle Leroy, was the man who was going to ask her to use it. He considered her to be a psychic. And even though she'd heard about the existence of other black psychics, she'd never heard about any other black ones who helped the police solve crimes. Only half black, Jenny's white half wasn’t as visible, and since she’d never had any contact with any of her white relatives, she had always thought of herself as being one-hundred percent black. And she always would.
When she was little, having the 'seeing” power wasn’t so bad because, back then, she only saw good things. Happy things. Like the day she met her Uncle Leroy. But once she grew up, all she could see was bad stuff—murders, killing, and horrible things. That’s when she and her grandmother started praying every day, begging God to take her “gift” away forever.
She had done all she could do to try to make it go away. She moved away from Tupelo so she could leave behind the place where it all started. When she turned nineteen, with help from her father and stepmother, she transferred from Tennessee State to NYU. She was only able to do that because, in addition to owning a growing medical practice in Manhattan, Malcolm Brown also owned a $7-million-dollar brownstone. Prime rental property, her dad purchased it because it had separate apartments for them: One for him, his wife, and their ten-year-old twin boys; one for Jenny, and one for Grandma Queenette. Although Jenny's grandma loved living in her hometown of Tupelo, Jenny knew Queenette Brown loved her more. So, after she moved to New York, Queenette decided to move there too.
Jenny and her grandmother needed each other, and they both needed to live somewhere where no one knew she could see things no one else could see. Although they knew it wasn't Jenny's fault, they didn't like the seeing power. They both believed it represented communing with demons. It was why God gave Jenny headaches, Queenette said, whenever she saw the bad stuff. Whenever she condemned the seeing, Jenny's grandmother always quoted biblical scripture, especially 2 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 14-15. It was the devil, she said, who was helping the police solve those crimes. Even though God sometimes used bad things for good, it was still the devil’s demons, Queenette said, who caused the seeing. Demons who—themselves, were proof of life after death. Those devils could see into the future and into the past. They could see things from where they were that no one else could see. Jenny's grandma believed what she believed, and her grandma's belief made Jenny believe it too. So they both abhorred the demons that caused her to "see." Demons that existed for the sole purpose of deceiving people into going against God by using powers the Almighty declared, through Holy Scripture, to be abhorrent to him.
Knowing all it would mean for her to go home, Jenny still went home to attend the funeral she had to attend. Out of respect. Once it was over, just as her Uncle Ross had warned, the Chief asked her to help him find a killer.
Leroy Geiger was a big part of the reason Jenny and Queenette left Tupelo ten years ago. Almost a member of the Brown family, he’d asked, and she’d helped him solve crimes many times, before and after she moved away to Manhattan. That’s why Leroy knew she could help him find the madman—a killer who had eluded capture for more than a year. A serial murderer, the man had continued on his crime spree while being hunted by the FBI, and by police in Birmingham and Memphis.
Jenny couldn’t think of anything she did not want to do more, but this time, she had no choice. If ever there was a time when she had to help the police solve a crime, this was that time. She had to help find the killer. Not just because of who was asking her to "see" again, but because, this time, the lunatic, the madman, the serial killer, hadn't murdered just another woman. He had murdered the woman who had given Jenny life.
The Woman Who Gave Her Life
Jessica Marie Stone had a day job these days and knew she shouldn’t have been working there that night. Everyone knew a madman was on the loose in Tupelo. But when a handsome man said he was lonely and needed a date, she thought he looked too “tamed” and too rich to be anything other than what he appeared to be: a really good guy wanting to do a really bad thing. She figured he probably had 2.5 children and a wife at home, a dog named “Spot,” and cat named “Puff,” so why not make more than a few extra bucks doing nothing more than having a little fun? The guy was cute and he was in the bar where she often worked at night after spending her days working on the phone, keeping lonely men entertained with naughty suggestive conversation. All the lonely losers who called her every day stayed in the realm of fantasy, but this guy was real. And this real guy seemed to like her, and even seemed to be trying to impress her as he ordered drink after drink after drink, for both of them.
She had never cared for the strong taste of alcohol, so it took the sweetness of three strawberry daiquiris to hide the fiery, burnt caramel taste of all the rum she needed that night to numb her conscience. She whispered to the guy who, to her, seemed a bit down, and maybe lonely. “You seem sad,” she said, "but tonight? I promise I'm gone help you forget all your sorrows.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” the man said.
He reminded Jessica of a young Elvis, so when he asked if she would spend the night with him, she said, “Sure.” He looked harmless in his expensive, designer black suit, maroon tie, and gold-rimmed Harry Potter glasses. It was the glasses, she decided, that made her decide he had to be harmless. After that she decided to pretend she wasn’t what she was, and that the man with her—in the dark, in one of the seediest hotel bars in Tupelo, wasn't what he was, but was actually young Elvis.
When she told him who he reminded her of, he smiled before taking another sip of his third whisky sour. Then he whispered in her ear, “Baby, when I’m done lovin’ you tender? You’ll never want to be with another man. Ever.”
It was the wee hours of the morning when the lull arrived in the bar, when Jessica allowed Elvis to take her hand and lead her to the elevator. When they got to his room, she spent the whole night pretending, and the next morning, after she took care of him one last time, he took care of her. The strong, metallic odor of blood was the last thing she smelled. Lying on the bed with all the essence of life leaving her for good, her last thought was of her little girl. Jenny Marie was a successful corporate attorney, living a good life in New York City. Her child would never have to wonder if a “milk toast” looking white guy who picked her up in a bar for a paid one-night stand was a crazed lunatic who would slit her throat.
Jessica Marie left home the day she turned eighteen. Always rebellious, after her parents told her they wouldn’t pay for her to go college unless she stopped dating her black boyfriend, she moved out to get away from them. When they said she was only dating Malcolm Brown to shame them, she knew they were right. And that's exactly what she intended to keep on doing.
Malcolm went away to Vanderbilt University, and she was lonely without him. So, to support herself while having fun, she started moving in the fast lane with some of her fastest friends. All girls her age, when they told her how they made a very good living by going out on “dates” with very wealthy men in Tupelo and Memphis, before long, she was doing the same thing. She was living the life with her friends; hiding how she was living and what she was doing from anyone who would disapprove. Once she started doing the drugs and booze that came with living the life, she started believing she was smart enough to fool her man and her parents. She told Malcolm her parents were paying for her apartment, and she told her parents Malcolm was paying for it. Not only did she fool them, she fooled herself too, because she told herself she’d get out of the life one day and go to college.
Soon, believing she was on the verge of having the life she’d always dreamed of having, Jessica got pregnant on purpose. Malcolm was finishing his last year of premed and would soon be completing his medical degree at Vanderbilt. Marrying him was going to show her parents how wrong they’d always been about her and her choices. Only things didn’t work out the way she'd planned. Something happened at the university that caused Malcolm to change his mind about continuing at Vanderbilt, and he decided to complete his medical studies, instead, at Meharry Medical College. Jessica couldn’t understand his decision. A medical degree from Meharry would mean nothing to her parents, while one from Vanderbilt would have had the “stinging power” she needed to burn them as she tossed all their disapproval of her right back in their racist, smug, so-called Christian faces.
“Who does that?” she asked Malcolm, speaking to him out of anger one night on the phone. “I’ve never heard of anybody graduating from premed, valedictorian of his class at a prestigious white university, then choosing to go to a black college for medical school. I’ve never heard of that! Do you think going to Meharry to become a doctor is going to make my parents see how wrong they've been about me?”
Malcolm breathed hard, then asked, calmly, if she wanted to hear all the things he’d heard lately—about her. After that, he said she was right. There was a lot she’d never heard of and would never learn or respect, about him and about his heritage. Finally, he told her he was going to medical school to become a doctor, and that he wasn't going to medical school to help her get back at her parents. He hung up that night after telling her she was the most selfish person he'd ever known, and once that happened, Jessica knew she’d lost him forever.
Just when Chief Leroy Geiger had his mind set on retiring, Tupelo became one of the targeted towns of a sociopath, a serial killer. Obsessed with finding the madman before he could strike again, the Chief knew this case was, most likely, the last big case he would work on before retiring. That's why he was obsessed, but the killer was obsessed too. The man was fixated on women who sold themselves for a living, and his pattern said he was picking his victims by race or ethnicity. That was why people had nicknamed him “The EEO Killer.” His signature had been used to kill four Hispanic female prostitutes in Memphis; four black ones in Birmingham, and now, three white ones in Tupelo. Chief Leroy and the FBI, along with police in Memphis and Birmingham, believed it meant he was soon going to kill another white female prostitute in Tupelo.
Too thin for his large frame—from too many days of replacing his meals with work, at 6'1" and 169-pounds, Chief Geiger didn’t intend to allow the fourth murder to happen. Not on his watch. His plan was to stop all the bloody killing of these women before he turned sixty-one, which was only months away. He knew it was entirely possible he could do it, but only if he could use something he had that none of the other police departments nor the FBI had. It was the same thing that helped him achieve a lot of the success he’d achieved over the years when he worked as a detective. It was the compassionate heart, the undying love, and the always accurate psychic powers of his “play niece,” Queenette Brown’s little seeing girl. Feeling utterly worn out from the heaviness of the burden he was carrying, the Chief ran both his hands through his tightly curled graying hair before securely locking his fingers together underneath his chin. He looked up at the ceiling, said his hundredth prayer for his case, then breathed out a hard grunt before staring straight ahead. He had to do a double-take when he thought he saw standing in the doorway to his office a beautiful caramel-colored angel with long brown hair falling softly around her shoulders and down her back. He wiped at his eyes. He wanted to believe what he was seeing—who he was seeing, but that was just too good to be true. She was standing in the doorway, her eyes on fixed on him, and he looked up and said a silent “Thank you,” to God.
Jenny Marie Brown hadn’t yet said even one word, but the Chief knew she had come to help. To be his crime-solving angel one more time. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you left Tupelo so you could stop the headaches that come with helping me. And I know I promised you I’d stop asking for your help.”
“Don’t,” Jenny said. “Uncle Leroy, it’s okay. This time? It’s okay.” She took her camera from her pocket and started taking pictures of the Chief.
“You sure?” He was used to Jenny-the-photographer, so he ignored the fact that she was taking pictures. He was still pinching his arm, trying to make sure he hadn't fallen asleep at his desk and dreamed her up.
“I’m sure," she said. "I mean. She was . . . my mother. And it is the last time I'll ever do this. So it’s okay, Chief. It's the last time. You hear me? The last time, so it's okay.”
“Then where the hell is my darn hug?”
Leroy Geiger was glad to see the finality in Jenny’s eyes. He wanted this to be her last time and his last time too. “Did Ross convince you to help?”
“No. He came up to New York City to see me and Grandma in twenty-six-degree weather. That spoke volumes.” She snapped one last shot, then put her camera away.
Leaning back in his chair laughing, the Chief wiped tears from the corners of his eyes. “Oh. Well. I guess he knew you'd be here today, because your Uncle Ross’s wife, your Aunt Tiana? She stopped by here before the funeral, and she left something for you."
“Oh. I told my uncle I needed something my mother had touched, so I hope that's what's in that bag. I never knew her. So. I never had anything of hers. I was shocked when Uncle Ross said he had something that once belonged to her. He said he would ask Aunt Tee to bring it to you, for me.”
The Chief handed her a note before pulling a large brown paper bag from the bottom drawer of a file cabinet. The note, from her Uncle Ross, said: ‘We never told you who gave you this, but this is something that once belonged to your mother.’”
After reading the note, what the Chief pulled from the bag made Jenny smile. She pulled her camera from her pocket once more. She had to get one last shot to memorialize in pictures what she knew, without a doubt, was going to help ensure the success of the last time she would ever need to use her gift to help solve a crime.
The Last Time
The highways and streets Jenny saw in her mind, as they were riding in the Chief’s car, took them to one of the town’s seedier areas. Still holding what Uncle Ross found for her, what her Aunt Tee had delivered, Jenny and the Chief finally arrived at a not-so-nice hotel. The pictures had already started popping into her head, and they were showing her as they parked that this was definitely the right place. Inside, they found a table in a sparsely populated area of the restaurant and bar. The Chief ordered coffee for them and Jenny placed Miss Livingston firmly on her lap. She held on tightly to the doll as the images started flooding into her mind, overflowing and pushing everything else to the side so fast and so furiously, the reorganizing of her thoughts started making her head hurt. She closed her eyes, tight, so she could push away the pain. “The man is white,” she said. "My mother is saying he has jet black, curly hair, and . . . she thinks he looks like Elvis. He’s wearing a dark suit and tie, and he doesn’t look like a killer. He’s handsome and he's wearing glasses. The Harry Potter kind. And . . . now, now I feel like I’m about to black out from this stupid headache. Oh my God, it's a bad one.”
The Chief took her hand in his. “Then let’s stop. We'll come back, Jenny. Tomorrow. Let's just stop for now.”
“No. Not yet. I have to do this today. And Chief?”
"I can see her." Jenny worked through the pain. "I see her. Oh, she's beautiful. Very pretty. Like a young Marilyn Monroe. A slim, naturally beautiful blonde-haired-blue-eyed Marilyn Monroe. She aged well. She was still just as beautiful as she was that day . . . when she brought me Miss Livingston. Only then, I didn't know she was my mother, and I didn't know she gave my Grandma this doll to give to me. I guess Grandma never found the right time to tell me who the beautiful lady was. And I guess it was because she didn't want me to be sad over the fact that my mother never visited me again. I know that's why she didn't tell me who gave me Miss Livingston, and she couldn't tell me a total stranger had given me a present, for no reason."
The Chief patted his niece's hand. "I think Queenette did what she felt she had to do. If it were me, I'm sure I would have done the same thing."
"Me too," Jenny said. "I know it was the right thing."
"So. We got Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, huh?" The Chief was unable to force a smile. "She was extremely beautiful, your mother." Seeing a little girl who wanted, so desperately to know a mother she'd never get to know that she would put herself through all this, Leroy's throat filled up with sorrow. He blinked hard to keep tears from forming as he turned his face away from Jenny, to keep her pain from becoming his. "She got in trouble, a few times, over the years," he said. "And you're right. She still had her looks the last time I saw her." He used a napkin to swipe at his eyes, then dried his sweaty forehead before turning back to Jenny. Now displaying his chiseled-in-stone detective composure, he said, "So, we’re looking for a white male who looks a little like Elvis, wears Harry Potter style glasses, and goes after the most beautiful 'working girls' he can find, in dark seedy bars?”
“She said it again, Uncle Leroy. My mother wants you to know he looked like young Elvis,” Jenny forced a smile. “He's about thirty or thirty-one. And . . . she went with him . . . willingly, to his room.” Jenny put both hands on her forehead, then closed her eyes. “The images,” she said. “They’re coming fast now, and now . . . oh, now my headache is back. It’s almost too much.” Wiping away tears, she closed her eyes, folded her arms and rested her head on them.
“Let’s stop,” the Chief said. “Jen, let’s stop for today.”
She opened her eyes. “No. Uncle Leroy, I’m not doing this again. Ever. We have to finish, today. We have to finish now.” She wiped beads of sweat from her forehead.
“But. Your headache. I don't like it, Jen. I’ll just use what you’ve given me, and it will all work out. I don't want you to hurt like this.” She was like a daughter to him, and being around her always made him miss his three daughters more than ever. All married and living in Memphis, he saw them and his grandchildren about once a year. It was like they all divorced him long ago too, along with his wife.
“No. It's not enough yet. You need more.” She breathed hard then grabbed Miss Livingston hard and held her close to her heart. “I can do this Uncle Leroy. Let me finish."
The Chief wanted this guy. He didn't like seeing Jenny hurting, at all, but he had to get this guy. Besides, he couldn't stop her if he wanted to, so he just closed his eyes and started praying silently, for Jenny.
"He killed her upstairs," she said, "in room 207. I can see the images of them on the bed. They’re naked, laughing. The bed is making crackling sounds. Like someone rolling over on plastic. Oh. He put plastic underneath the sheet before they got to his room that night. Now he’s wrapping the covers around her . . . and, oh! Oh my God. Uncle Leroy, he cut her throat. It hurt her. Real bad. It hurt her so bad!” Jenny leaned forward and laid her head on the table. Crying, she started wiping tears away with her hands. "Oh, God, why did he have to hurt her like that?"
The Chief quickly pulled all the napkins from the dispenser at their table, and then started looking around for more at other tables. He grabbed the dispenser from a nearby empty table, then moved his chair close so he could embrace Jenny. “Wait,” he said,“Jen. Wait. That sounds backwards. He wrapped her up before he killed her?”
“He did it to keep the blood from splattering on him. When he wrapped her in the blanket, she thought he was playing. She was laughing . . . and it all happened so fast. He cut her throat, and, after that he put her, the blankets, and the plastic sheet from the bed into a big black suitcase. Then he took a shower. Put clean sheets on the bed again, and he left. The suitcase had rollers, and it wobbled. All the way to the elevator, then all the way out to his car.”
“That makes sense,” the Chief said. “Perfect sense. He doesn’t leave a crime scene, because he takes it with him. All the evidence leaves with him.”
Jenny put both hands on her forehead. “Wait. Chief. She's saying something. Over and over. She keeps saying ‘Dar.’”
“Shhhh! Dar, not Dar? What? Beck, not Beck. Becky! She said you need to find a woman named Rebecca, and she's called 'Becky.'” Finally, exhausted, Jenny collapsed and reached out for the chief's hands, laughing. He started laughing only because she was laughing. Jenny felt overjoyed because she knew, for sure, the last time had come and gone. "It's over," she said. "Chief. This really was the last time." He pulled her close and cradled her in his arms, still laughing with her. He was elated for her, knowing his dear little "niece" would never have to go through the pain of doing this ever again. That knowledge was giving him more joy than anything had given him in years.
Jenny's headache left in an instant only seconds after her mother stopped talking to her and showing her the pictures, and it was already hard for her to even remember what the headache felt like. The seeing was gone, and Jenny knew it. It was gone, for good, and it had taken with it the unbearable headaches. That's when she knew God had allowed her to use the power to help the Chief, and now that he would not need it again, it was gone. Forever. The gift had left her as mysteriously as it arrived.
The Chief called his forensics team to process room 207, not that he expected to find much. The guy knew how to keep from making a crime scene. Using plastic sheets under the cloth ones. Always dumping his victims where they’d be easily found was something that had never been released to the public. No one knew the police and the FBI suspected there was always another crime scene. And now, Jenny had confirmed it.
For the next three days and nights, Chief Leroy hung out in a dark corner of the seedy bar as much as he could. He got to know the regular patrons, the working girls, and anyone else who came there more than once or twice. Once he started feeling he’d reached a dead end, he made up his mind. It was time to start going to other hotel bars in the area. Maybe someone at one of the other places had seen the guy. He had to find someone, because he couldn’t go to his sketch artist and say “draw me a picture of young Elvis wearing Harry Potter glasses.” His gut told him this "Becky" Jenny mentioned was the someone who had seen the killer, and now he had to find her. He had to find Becky, because experience had taught him no one would take him seriously if he told his team or the FBI he’d gotten his information from a psychic.
On his way out of the bar that night, he was stopped by a woman he was sure he had already talked to.
“You’re the police, right?” she asked. “I’m Dee Warren? I talked to you the other night?”
He looked at his notepad and saw he’d written the name “Dee Warren” over one paragraph of interview notes.
“Actually,” she said. “My nickname is Dee, but my name is Darlene.”
"Dar" had been one of the last things Jenny said to him. “Yes,” he said, “I remember you, Miss Warren.”
“I’m glad I caught you." She adjusted her apron. "I'm sorry. I'm getting ready for my shift, but I've learned something I have to tell ya. One of the girls that used to work here? She left weeks ago, right before . . . well, you know. Anyway, I stopped by her new job to see her tonight, and I told her how you had this place all staked out and everything. That’s when she told me she thinks she might have seen the guy.”
The other bar was in one of the nicest hotels in Tupelo. When the Chief got there, Rebecca, “Becky” Avery was waiting for him.
“I think I saw the guy,” she said. “The one you told Dee might have been talking to that pretty blonde that always came in there late at night. That guy? Well, he caught my attention ‘cause he was so good looking. He was dressed real nice to be hanging around in the shadows, like he was tryin’ not to be noticed. When he sat down with that blonde, I thought he knew her."
"Why? What made you think that?"
"I don't know. It was just, well, they seemed to get real close real fast. Even for a woman like her. You know? I got off at two a.m. and they were still there, in the back. Talking and makin' out at the table. It was my last night, so I never went back there after that. Then I went on vacation to Miami before starting this new job. I didn’t even know that blonde woman was the same one what got killed until Dee came by to see me tonight. She was telling me how you thought that woman had been at her bar before she got killed and how you had her bar all staked out, and that's when it all came back to me. And Chief? If Dee, I mean, if Darlene hadn’t brought it up and told me all about that woman git'n murdered? I never would’ve thought about that guy ever again.”
Three months later the Chief retired. At age sixty-one, he was able to put behind him a very successful career, and—to his surprise, his ex-wife and all three of his daughters, and his grandchildren, came to his retirement party.
Exactly twenty-five years since he had left the Memphis PD and moved back home to Tupelo, he and his ex-wife were getting back together. They were expanding and remodeling the home they bought together when they first got married. They needed a bigger house because they were planning on having lots of family get-togethers whenever they weren't traveling across the U. S. and beyond.
"I'm a lucky man," the Chief said to one of his other very special guests. "When she brought it up a month ago, I got to thinking about it. I knew she was the only woman for me, and she told me I had always been the only man for her. For her to even be considering taking me back? After all this time? I went ahead and proposed knowing in my heart I'm just very, very lucky."
"I'm surprised to hear you say that." Queenette was giving him nothing but frowns, knowing he was expecting a smile. "I know you know better than that, 'cause I know good and well I raised you better than that."
"You right, Mama Queen." Leroy accepted a hug when he realized his mistake. "You and my first mama both raised me better than that. I'm not lucky. I'm blessed."
"You better believe it. No such thing as luck. I know. I was just seventeen when I married a man nearly twenty years older than me. Tupelo gossipers flapped they gums long and hard 'bout it, but it didn't bother me, 'cause I knew I was blessed. Ross senior? I loved him, and he adored me. A tall, handsome man, and he outright owned a big old house left to him by his granny. Our parents gave us their blessings, and we both knew our love was a blessing too. Only two things I never liked about Ross senior. Drove that big truck, and was always gone too much. That's why I started keeping folks children, mostly for company, even though I always did love kids. Then I got my daycare license, and before long, I was in business. Married ten years before our twins came along. Another fifteen before the accident took Ross senior. Son, I'm so glad you going back to that woman. Blind man can see she still loves you, and life moves real fast, bless God. Got to hold on to all the love you can find, and all you can keep."
Twenty-five years ago, instead of leaving the police force, like he’d promised his wife he’d do once they had kids, Leroy had stayed on the force. He just couldn't leave, he told her, and she told him she was just too tired to stay with him. Tired of being afraid all the time, afraid for his life. So she left him. After that, he left Memphis and moved back home to do something good for his hometown. He felt things had changed enough in Tupelo for someone like him to get to be Chief of Police, so he worked and worked on a new dream, which came true for him. His goal had been to do something there that he felt only he could do—get black and white people working together against crime, without regard to race, creed, or color. He wanted his hometown to rise above the “us vs. them” mentality that plagued a lot of towns and cities when it came to fighting crime. He wanted something more, something better, for his hometown.
"Leroy Geiger?" Queenette gave him another hug. "God allowed my baby to be used as a blessing for you, so you could help a lot of people, and so you could retire a hero. In a 'Old South' Mississippi town like this one, a black man is one of the most successful police chiefs—and one of the most successful detectives, in the history of the police department."
She was right. Among all his other accolades, thanks to Jenny Marie, Jessica Marie, Darlene Warren, and Becky Avery, Leroy Geiger, in his last time serving as a detective, had captured the EEO Killer before he could kill any other women.
While home for the Chief's retirement party, Jenny and Queenette got a chance to visit the home they all once shared in Tupelo. When Queenette moved to New York, she asked Ross to continue to live there, to take care of the place, in case she ever wanted to move back. Through the years, Ross had made it his own, and when he got married, he and his wife took care of it as if it were their own. Living rent and mortgage free for ten years, Ross had fixed up and modernized his mother's house while he saved all the money he and his wife would have used to pay rent or a mortgage. After renovating his mother's house, working together, Ross and Tiana saved so much they started buying, renovating, and flipping other old houses. They became very good at what they were doing, and now, in addition to owning a real-estate company with his wife, who was already a real-estate agent and broker, Ross also owned his own trucking company. He supervised truck drivers and didn’t drive much anymore. With all he had, however, he was still finding time to grumble about anything and everything that bothered him.
“Just because a black man has managed to earn and to save $7-million dollars,” he grumbled to his mother, “doesn’t mean he ought to spend it on a swanky apartment building up in New York City. Even if it is in the best part of Harlem. Malcolm could have bought just about every commercial building in Tupelo with all that money.”
“I think he’s leaving that for you to do,” his mother said. Queenette Brown smiled. She was very proud of her two boys and her girl. All three of her children were doing real well, and her old house was looking as new as it possibly could. Even the once squeaky front porch planks were completely modern and new, and none of them squeaked.
When Jenny stepped into the living room that day, she immediately felt something was off. The antique Steinway was still there; its stately elegance still filling the room with memories and warmth. But something very important was clearly missing. She walked over to the piano. The brown paper bag she carried made a loud crumpling sound that got the attention of Uncle Ross and her grandmother when she opened it. She lifted out of the bag the doll that had now spent several months in Manhattan. Miss Livingston had helped Jenny get through some tough times, but now it was time for her to come home. After taking several photographs of the doll atop the newly restored upright piano, Jenny smiled. Miss Livingston looked beautiful in her new pink ball gown that was more fitting and elegant than the sleeping gown she once wore, and her owner believed that doll had actually started smiling a bigger smile. She was sure it was because after enjoying her first and last trip to New York City, Miss Livingston was overjoyed to be back in Tupelo, living in Uncle Ross’s new old home. Jenny brought her back because it was where the doll belonged; she was a fixture there, and it was the right place for her to be. Miss Livingston belonged in the place where she and Uncle Ross could keep on protecting and preserving the goodness of the past, every day, with their presence.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD