Molly

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Chapter 21

Ginny reread the email from Officer Seaborn. She had put in a request for available information about Kevin Levinson, the man convicted of raping several local high school girls. She had expected a change in Kevin’s appearance, but not a radical change. The smirking young stud, whose photo had dominated the front pages of national newspapers twenty-five years ago, was now a stringy-haired, pasty-faced man who hadn’t aged gracefully.

He was also the man she and Teresa had seen lurking about at Simon’s. To her relief, she hadn’t seen him since, so she deduced that the incident wasn’t connected to the fire at Ruth’s, or Ruth’s accident. With the culprit positively identified, she was less sure.

Her cell rang. It was Nick returning her call.

“Hi, Nick. Thanks for calling back.”

“Melanie tells me that some new information about the incident at Simon’s has come to your attention.”

“That’s true, but before I share it with you, I hear that congratulations are in order.”

He sounded puzzled. “For what.”

“The pro bono cases you take on.”

“Who have you been talking to?”

“Susan. Molly and I ran into her at Town Center.”

“Do me a favor and keep it to yourself. The council’s intentions are honorable, but some actions and donations should remain anonymous.”

“My lips are sealed. After you notified the Summerfield police that Levinson was released from prison six months ago, an officer named Chance Seaborn emailed a recent photo of him. I’d seen the newspaper photos taken at the time of his trial and he’s not the same skirt chasing guy who preyed on vulnerable young women. More importantly, he is the man Teresa and I saw at Simon’s.”

“Did you share that information with Officer Seaborn?”

“I did, He is going to show the photo to Ruth’s neighbors. If the man they saw lurking in the neighborhood is Levinson, the police will pick him up for questioning.”

“Excellent.”

“If he’s the fire bug, who knows what else he’s been up to. There’s something else that you might find interesting. I read the book Sweet Justice that Teresa recommended. I read it out of curiosity, not because I actually expected it to offer insight into the mind of a criminal. Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, but Nick, some of the crimes committed and covered up by the woman portrayed in the book, mirror documented crimes in Summerfield.”

“It’s not unusual for the premises of novels to come from actual crime cases.”

“I realize that, but it’s worrying that she has so many details about the crimes. I’m going to drive to Selma today and hope that Carla is in town. Don’t fret, I’m not going to make accusations.”

“When do you plan to leave?”

“Immediately.”

“Now, you’ve piqued my interest. How would you like to have back-up? Unless you object, I’d like to meet you at that restaurant you are so fond of. What’s it called?”

“If you’re sure meeting me isn’t an inconvenience, I’d love to have back-up. The name of the restaurant is Betty’s Luncheonette. You can’t miss it. It’s located on Main Street, one block beyond the town square.”

“I had a cancellation this morning, and it’s early enough in the day to shuffle my afternoon appointments. Be sure to bring the book. I’d like to do a quick speed reading before we talk to Carla Thorne. Am I remembering her name correctly?”

“You are. Sweet Justice was her first novel, so her bio information is sketchy. One critic referred to her as a new author with potential.”

Ginny arrived in Selma at eleven thirty, a half hour before her lunch date with Nick. She ducked in the book shop, curious to find out if Thorne’s book was selling well.

The young woman at the sales desk greeted her warmly. “Hi, I’m Dory Adler. Welcome to Selma, and welcome to Books Aplenty. Are you looking for a specific book, or are you browsing?”

“Hi Dory. My name is Ginny Roark. Do you by chance have a signed copy of Sweet Justice?”

“We usually have signed copies of Carla’s book, but I sold my last signed copy a week ago. If Carla was in town, she’d be happy to sign a copy for you. Rumor has it that she’s in New York working with her agent. The last time we talked, she said that she was thinking about renting a loft in New York City. Selfishly, I hope that she doesn’t. Our business has doubled since her book was published. Last spring the shop did an “Evening with the Author” that was a huge success.”

“It’s always exciting when new authors are successful. What’s she like?”

“Reserved. She has rented a studio here in Selma for five years, yet she’s still a mystery. She doesn’t talk about her past.”

Sweet Justice is edgy. I can’t imagine a young woman being able to make Paula come alive the way Thorne did?”

“She’s not all that young. Maybe in her mid to late fifties.”

“Does she have a family?”

“If she does, she never mentions them. Would you like for me have her sign a book for you the next time she’s in? I will be happy to mail it to you.”

She shook her head. “No, but thank you for asking. I promised a friend I’d get a copy of the book for him. He didn’t specify that he wanted a signed copy. That was my idea. There’s always a chance that a new author will turn into another Steven King or Anne Tyler.”

Betty was nowhere in sight when Ginny entered the restaurant. When the hostess showed her to a table, she asked if Betty was in.

“She is. She’s in the kitchen. Can I give her a message?”

“Please. Tell her that Ginny Roark would like a word with her when she can take a break. I won’t keep her long.”

Betty came bustling out of the back a few minutes later. “Ginny, sweetheart, you’ve caught me at my busiest time.”

“I’m not going to keep you, Betty. A friend and I are here for lunch. Do you think that you can spare a few minutes in about an hour? If not, we can come back later. I really need to pick your brain.”

“Now, I’m intrigued. If we’re still busy in the kitchen in an hour, I’ll have Rita let you know.” She turned to go, then turned back. “Chicken stir-fry is today’s special, and it’s almost as good as my meatloaf.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

When Nick joined her, she slid the newly purchased book across the table. “I thought you might like to have a copy of your own.”

“After I’ve finished reading it. I’ll pass it on to Charles.” He picked up a menu. “What do you recommend?”

“Betty, the owner, recommended the chicken stir-fry, but you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. I apologize, Nick. I think I’ve wasted your time. Carla Thorne isn’t in town. Hasn’t been for several weeks. I should have called ahead, but Selma is a small town. I didn’t want anyone to warn her that I was asking questions about her.”

“I’ve been planning to drive over for ages, so I don’t consider the trip a waste of time. After lunch, maybe we can talk to a few of the shop owners. Who knows, maybe her absence is a blessing. Sometimes you can learn more from friends and acquaintances than from the person of interest.”

“Betty is busy in the kitchen, but she’ll talk to us when the lunch rush is over.”

“I’ve been living on take out for two weeks, so a sit-down lunch is going to be a treat” He put the menu down. “I like what I saw of the town driving in. I’ve always had a soft spot for small towns. My grandparents lived in a small town in Tennessee. From the time I was eight until I was sixteen, I spent a week with them during the summer. They knew everybody in town. After few visits, so did I.”

At twelve forty-five, Betty breezed into the dining room and slipped into the booth next to Ginny. “Whew . . . I’m getting too old for this kind of work.”

Ginny grinned. “Never. You’ll be hustling around here for at least another twenty years. Nick I’d like for you to meet my friend Betty, the owner of this establishment and a descendent of one of Selma’s first settlers.”

“Delighted. Compliments to the chef. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal so much. I’ll definitely be back.”

“That’s music to my ears, Nick. Are you from Archdale?”

“No. From New Holland. Ginny and I met through a client of mine.”

Shirley noticed Sweet Justice on the table. She turned to Ginny. “So, you bought it. Let me know what you think of our local author’s writing.”

“I’ve already read it. Carla Thorne is an excellent writer. She’s why Nick and I are in town today. We were hoping that we could catch her in her studio.”

“You’re out of luck. No one’s seen her in weeks. There’s a rumor going ’round that she’s going to give up her studio here in Selma. She told Alice that she needed to be closer to her agent and publisher.”

“Betty, did Carla ever entertain visitors here at the restaurant, personal friends instead of fans?”

“She was occasionally in here with a friend from out of town, but the only visitor she introduced to me was her agent. If I remember correctly, her name is Brenda Westbrook.”

Ginny took a photograph out of her purse and handed it to Shirley. “Do you remember seeing this woman with her?”

Shirley frowned. “Is this a joke, Ginny. This is a photo of Carla Thorne.”

Ginny shot a baffled look at Nick. “No joke, Shirley. I haven’t met Carla, so I had no idea that the woman in the photo was the woman you know as Carla. I know her as Christine Snipes. She and her family live in Summerfield. If you don’t mind, look at the photo again. Could this be someone who resembles Carla?”

Betty shrugged. “Carla doesn’t wear make-up, and she doesn’t wear designer clothes, but if this isn’t a photo of Carla, it has to be her twin.”

“Christine doesn’t have a twin.”

“What about a sister?”

“She doesn’t have a sister.”

Betty began to drum her fingers. “Then, I don’t know what to tell you. Carla and the woman in the photo both have a beauty mark over their left eye. It could be a coincidence, but it seems unlikely that two women would have a beauty in the same place.

“Christine Snipes must be writing under a pseudonym. I don’t think it’s that unusual for authors to use a pen name. Most authors don’t break into the market until they have experienced numerous rejections. Sometimes it’s expedient to use an unfamiliar name when submitting a manuscript. Carla made no bones about having several manuscripts rejected.”

Ginny nodded. “There are certainly viable reasons for using a pen name. My concern, and Christine’s family’s concern, is not her writing, but her mental health. Christine was diagnosed as having a bi-polar disorder when she was seventeen. Five years ago, Christine began to periodically leave town without telling her family where she was going or when she would be back. I'm guessing that her out of town jaunts coincide with the times that Carla was here in Selma.”

Betty frowned. “If her husband was worried or suspected Christine of nefarious activity, why didn’t he hire a private eye.”

“Roger cares about Christine, but he learned long ago that he can’t control her actions. He no longer tries.”

Betty shook her head in bewilderment. “Carla can be reclusive at times, but she is nothing like the woman you are describing. I can usually spot a person who is suffering from a bi-polar disorder. Are you sure Christine was diagnosed correctly?”

“I am not a therapist, so it would ludicrous for me to say yes or no. What I do know is that Christine is a very complicated person. The more I learn about her history the more I’m inclined to believe that she suffers from multiple personality disorder.”

“I’m shocked, Ginny, but I suspect that there is a plausible explanation for the facial similarities of the two women. Why does it matter? If her family is concerned about her disappearances you can tell them that she’s been very happy and successful here in Selma. They should be proud.”

“I wish it were that simple, Shirley. Christine can be a one-person wrecking crew.”

“She hasn’t caused trouble here. Just the opposite.”

“Unfortunately, the Summerfield police might want to question her and some of her closest friends.”

“The police? Why? It might be a moral issue to hide from one’s family, but it isn’t a crime.”

Ginny looked at Nick. “I’ll let you explain, Nick.”

“There are minor and major crimes depicted in her book that are similar to actual crimes committed in Summerfield. The police will want to question her about her sources for the book."

“Obviously, she based her novel on real life crimes. Don’t most authors do that?”

“Yes, they do. Look at the situation from the officers’ viewpoint. Their job is to solve crimes.”

Betty was indignant. “Carla will be furious that she is suspected of being guilty of a crime. She isn’t a criminal.”

“Ginny and I are fact gatherers, and so are police officers. They don’t know Carla or Christine. My interest in Christine, and Ginny’s interest, is only as it relates to a seven-year old child named Molly. We didn’t come to Selma expecting to learn that Christine and Carla are one and the same. If it is determined that Carla is Christine’s pen name, we might not be able to keep the police away from Selma."

“It’s well documented that Christine can be a lovely and charming woman, or she can be a shrew. My advice to you is to remain open-minded, but understand that Christine is a manipulator with a silver tongue.”

“Sorry if I overacted. What if Christine aka Carla’s disappearances are part of a publicity scheme to help Carla sell books?”

Ginny shook her head. “If only. Believe me, Shirley. We wouldn’t be here today if lives weren’t at stake. We haven’t put the pieces together so it would be inappropriate to draw conclusions. When the police’s investigation is over, the truth will emerge.”

As soon as the door to the restaurant closed behind them, Ginny let out a sigh of relief. “I didn’t see that coming. None of this makes sense. Is it even possible for a person like Christine to convince an entire town that she’s a patient and kind woman?”

“Who described her as kind?”

“Betty and the sales associate at the book store. There is a mentally challenged woman named Alice who shows up at local weddings, family picnics, private parties, etc. uninvited. For the most part, the hosts accept her presence unless she becomes boisterous. When that happens, she’s asked to leave. Sometimes she leaves peaceably, and other times she’s disruptive. According to Betty, Carla befriended Alice, and Alice has become more malleable. Betty claims that Carla never loses patience with Alice, shows her more kindness than Alice has ever experienced.”

Nick shrugged. “Another inconsistency. We’re not seeing the big picture because we don’t have all of the facts. There’s one thing for certain, we need to back off. If Carla isn’t Christine, she may come down hard on her accusers.”

“Should we tell the police what we know?”

“The Summerfield police are going to be short-handed Christmas week. Investigations will temporarily come to a halt. Besides, officers don’t take hearsay seriously.”

“That’s fine by me. I need to review the facts, and I’m not going to have any available time to do that until after New Year’s.” She paused before adding. “But, here’s what we’re up against, Nick. "Nothing about Christine’s history or personality makes sense. Her parents didn’t understand her and neither do her husband and daughter.”

“So, it would appear. I’d like to consult Charles. He has an analytical mind, and he knows the people involved.”

She nodded.

“If Charles can make time to see me, I’ll drive to Summerfield today. He and Nell have known Christine since she was an infant.”

“Teresa doesn’t think that Charles and Nell ever understood Christine’s devious mind.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’m praying that we can get through the holidays without another fire or accident. Molly, Brian and I need a break.”

“When does Christmas vacation start for Molly and Brian?”

“Tomorrow. As I mentioned, I won’t have a minute to call my own until the first of the year. That’s just fine if I am building happy memories with family and friends. When are you leaving for the visit with your parents?

“Day after tomorrow.”

“Before you go, be sure to let me know if Charles had any thoughts about how to proceed with the Christine/Carla situation.”

“I’ll text you tonight.”

“Good. I’ll sleep better knowing we aren’t the only ones who know about Carla. Thanks for coming today. Have a safe and happy Christmas.”

“You too. I’ll be in touch.”

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