Authors: Reba White Williams
Praise for Reba White Williams's first Coleman and Dinah Greene novel,
“There's a major new presence on the crime sceneâ¦Reba White Williams. Restrike will strike a big hit with sophisticated readers who love culture, uncommon criminals and terrific writing. You won't be able to put this book down!”
â Alexandra Penney,
New York Times
“Savvy, saucy, and scary â a worthy debut from a writer who bears watching.”
â Jacquelyn Mitchard,
New York Times
“A tight, tricky plot that takes you on a breathless romp through the world of fine art prints. Captivating characters and a highly energetic plot â art smart and highly literate â I loved it!”
â Laura Childs,
New York Times
“A fast-paced tale of nefarious dealings in New York's art world.”
â Thomas H. Cook, Edgar Award-winning author
“A captivating debut, Restrike puts on display the international world of fine art. Reba White Williams has crafted an ambitious, fascinating and textured puzzler, rife with suspects and red herrings. A polished gem of a read. Bring on the next Coleman and Dinah Greene mystery!”
â Julia Spencer-Fleming,
New York Times
“Starts out with a bang and keeps you riveted! A first rate debut!”
â Steve Berry,
New York Times
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
The Story Plant
Studio Digital CT, LLC
PO Box 4331
Stamford, CT 06907
Copyright © 2013 by Reba White Williams
Jacket design by Barbara Aronica-Buck.
Print ISBN-13: 978-1-61188-129-5
E-book ISBN-13: 978-1-61188-130-1
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by US Copyright Law. For information, address The Story Plant.
First Story Plant printing: July 2014
Printed in the United States of America
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Early readers of
, my first book featuring Coleman and Dinah Greene, asked questions about the characters: What were the young women’s backgrounds? What made them the way they are?
is a chapter in the story of Coleman and Dinah when they were children.
The winter my great-niece Dinah was seven, my sister Ida and I reached our lowest point financially, and perhaps spiritually. A dark cloud of depression seemed to hang over us both. January and February were miserably cold, and March wasn’t much better. Getting out of bed in the morning was a struggle. The frosts were as thick as snow on the dry brown grass, and the chickadees and cardinals and jays huddled near the bird feeder, waiting for a handout. I felt defeated, even hopeless, although I knew it was a sin and begged God for His help in pulling myself out of my black mood.
Our house was built in the 1840s and isn’t well insulated or centrally heated; icy drafts sneak in under every door and around the windows. At night, the house creaks and groans in the frigid winds, and Dinah often cried in her sleep. When one of us rushed to comfort her, she said she’d heard ghosts. We told her it was only the wind, but I don’t think she was convinced. As soon as she fell asleep again, I’d crawl back in my bed, the only place I was truly warm. I slept in layers of clothing and under piles of anything I could find.
In the winter months, we spent most of our waking time in the kitchen, where the gas range and the fireplace and an ancient potbellied stove ran full-out. Even so, the big room with its rattly old windows and doors was never warm enough, but the glow of the stove and the crackling fire created an illusion of warmth.
Neither Ida’s catering business nor my sewing brought in much money between Christmas and Easter, and we couldn’t see a way to add to our income. We’d sold everything sellable in the house, and all the land except for a plot around the house—the vegetable garden, the chicken pen, a small pasture for the cow, and a tumbledown barn.
By mid-January we were living on eggs and milk, the last of the vegetables we had canned in the lush summer months, and shriveled potatoes, carrots, and onions from the root cellar. Sometimes a neighbor boy brought us fish he’d caught or a rabbit he’d shot, and friends occasionally dropped off a cake or a casserole. We were too proud to tell anyone how hard up we were. We endured and prayed to the Lord for guidance.
When the tiny white flowers of an ancient shrub near the barn, the Breath of Spring—some folk call it winter honeysuckle—wafted their delicate scent in the cool morning air and attracted the first bees, and the snowdrops by the kitchen door gleamed white and green against the brown, my spirits rose, and Ida seemed more cheerful, too. Then April arrived, with the warm spring sun that relieves aching bones and brings out masses of glorious flowers. Dogwood and redbud trees glowed in drifts of white and deep pink through the pale green new leaves in the woods, and the forsythia and daffodils in the yard seemed to capture the sunlight and bring it closer to the earth, and Easter arrived, with all its joy and celebration.
In May, Olivia, the last of the Fairgroves—the family that had lived next door to us Slocumbs since before the Civil War—died and left us a small legacy. Olivia’s death was a blessing. She’d been sick for a long time, living a half-life in a nursing home, and her gift to us was a godsend. We wouldn’t see the money for months, but it was good to know it would be available to help us survive another winter.
In early June, great joy came our way: we learned that Coleman, my other great-niece, missing for two years, had been found in New Orleans. It was truly wonderful news, tinged with a hint of sadness, because poor Olivia was Coleman’s other grandmother: Olivia’s only child, Angela, had married Ida’s son, Andrew. I dearly wish Olivia had lived to know that Coleman was safe. But the hint of melancholy I felt was a tiny cloud in the bluest of skies. Thanks be to God, Coleman was coming home.
This is how it was: My sister Ida Lee Slocumb married Judge James Ormonde Greene, an older man from Goldsboro. After the wedding, they lived in his family house, all that was left of a plantation called Longwood. Ida and James had two children, James Jr. and Andrew, and when they were toddlers, Judge Greene died of a heart attack.
The Judge was courtly and looked like Clark Gable in
Gone with the Wind
, but he lived beyond his means and left Ida with almost nothing. She sold the little there was and moved back to our old house, empty and nearly worthless, in Slocumb Corners, a crossroad about thirty miles from Wilmington, North Carolina.
I was teaching English at a girls’ school in Raleigh, and I was lonely and tired of teaching, so when she called, I was pleased to join her. We struggled to raise and educate the boys, and life was never easy. But I loved Jamie and Andrew as if they were my own children and felt pride in watching them grow tall and strong. I was thankful every day to be a part of their lives.
Jamie, Dinah’s father, was our hope for the future, but he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident when Dinah was only four months old. Jamie had just started his law practice and left nothing but debts. His wife had no family. We were Dinah’s only relatives, so we took her in and once again found ourselves raising a child.
She was a good baby, and she’s a good little girl. She’s pretty as a picture, too—looks just like her mama, with blue eyes the color of the ragged robins that bloom wild in the pasture and long dark hair I braid every morning.
I couldn’t help loving Andrew—he was charming and amusing when he was sober—but there’s no getting around it: Coleman’s father was a black sheep. When he died from a drug overdose, he was living in Richmond with a floozy named Gloria, and by the time we heard he’d passed away, Gloria had disappeared, taking three-year-old Coleman with her. We tried everything to find her—Olivia even hired a detective—but nothing came of it. We could only wait and pray.
I never told Ida or Olivia, but after the first year, I gave up hope of ever seeing Coleman again. I kept on praying, but God forgive me, I didn’t have faith that He would answer my prayers. Ida never stopped believing Coleman would be found; she always said that the Byrds, better than any detective agency, would locate her. The Byrds are a big family—the government probably classifies them as black, and some of their ancestors were African slaves—but they long ago intermarried with Cherokees and Caucasians, so most of the Byrds are a golden-brown color, no darker than so-called white girls who’ve baked their bodies on the beach. A long time ago,
magazine published an article showing pictures of people of the future, and they looked just like the Byrds. If someday everyone is as smart and good as the Byrds, the world will be a far better place than it is today.
The Byrds live all over the South and everywhere else, I guess—I picture Byrds helping Santa’s elves at the North Pole—but they keep in touch with each other, and especially with our neighbor Mary Louise, the head of the family. No matter where they live, the Byrds call Slocumb Corners home. Mary Louise has been my sister Ida’s closest friend since they were children. We couldn’t have survived the bad times without her and the other Byrds.
Coleman’s daddy moved to Richmond after Angela drowned in the river (some say it was suicide, but there’s no way of knowing, and I’m not a person to believe the worst of my family and friends). Coleman was only about two, and Olivia sent Jenny Byrd, a trained baby nurse, to Richmond to take care of her. But the woman Andrew lived with—not Gloria, she came later; there were a lot of sorry women in Andrew’s short life—ran Miss Jenny off, and poor little Coleman didn’t have anybody but her daddy and whatever tramp he happened to bring home. Nights Andrew drank and drugged and womanized, and days he worked in a cigarette factory. He was little help to Coleman, but God was looking after that child. One of Andrew’s women put Coleman in daycare in a nearby church. The woman probably just wanted to get rid of the baby, but it worked out well for Coleman.
The Richmond Byrds watched Coleman from afar, and let Mary Louise know that Coleman’s daycare program was run by good people, and that she seemed fine. They didn’t try to help her for fear they would make her life worse. The women Andrew picked up weren’t likely to take kindly to what they’d regard as interference by the Byrds.
When Andrew died, and Gloria sneaked off with Coleman, we couldn’t understand why she took the baby with her. All we knew was that when Ida got to Richmond, the filthy shack where they’d lived was deserted. Ida said it stank of whiskey and cigarettes, and the yard was littered with beer cans and liquor bottles and worse. Not a trace of Gloria or Coleman remained, and for the next two years, we had no word of them. But the Byrds never stopped looking, and they found her, just as Ida always said they would. We can never thank God or the Byrds enough.
Ida wanted to go to New Orleans to bring Coleman home, but Mary Louise and I talked her out of it. If Gloria heard Ida was coming, she might run off with Coleman again, and maybe we’d never find her. Mary Louise arranged for Laura Byrd, a cousin who lives in a little town outside New Orleans, to collect Coleman and fetch her to Slocumb Corners. Nobody asked how Miss Laura got Coleman away from Gloria—that was Byrd business, and inquiring would have been looking a gift horse in the mouth. The day Coleman returned to us, everyone in Slocumb County rejoiced and praised the Lord.
I knew in the back of my mind I had a cousin Coleman, but I just put the knowin’ away like you do when something doesn’t seem real, or is like a storybook, kind of half-real. So I was ‘mazed when Miss Ida told me Coleman was comin’ to live with us. Seems like all the folks around here have big families but us. “Us” is just my granny—I call her Miss Ida ‘cause that’s what everybody else calls her—and my great-aunt Polly. I love Miss Ida and Aunt Polly to death, but I’d have liked having a mama and daddy and a brother, and ‘specially a sister. I had prayed for a sister, and I was about to get me one. My heart near ‘bout jumped out of my chest, I was that excited.
Miss Ida said Coleman could stay in my room with me, and we should get it ready, so we all went upstairs to look at it. It’s a big room with a fireplace, and at the back of the house, so you can see the Good Hope River from the windows. But there’s not much furniture: a big ol’ white-painted bed, saggy in the middle; a beat-up wooden chair by a table where I do homework; a chest of drawers; and a wardrobe for hanging clothes (our house is so old it doesn’t have closets). Thin white curtains, yellow from being old; a white crocheted spread, made and mended by Aunt Polly; a bare wood floor and blue walls, faded by time and the sun. In winter, the room smells like wood smoke, but now I can have the windows open and let the breeze and the sunshine in, and I can smell the pine trees, and the lavender we put in the linen closet with the sheets.
“We can both sleep in that big bed,” I said, thinking how we’d talk late at night.
“You can keep each other warm in winter,” Miss Ida said.
Maybe, but that’ll take some doin’. Our house is freezin’ in the winter, and all of us suffer from the cold. “And keep each other company when we have bad dreams,” I said.
Aunt Polly frowned and pushed her glasses up on her nose. “Are you still having bad dreams, honey?”
“No, ma’am,” I fibbed. “But Coleman might, being strange and all.” I make it my business not to worry Miss Ida and Aunt Polly with my bad dreams, unless I wake ‘em up crying—that I can’t help. They have plenty of troubles, without me adding to ‘em.
“Dinah, why don’t you go all over the house, and look in every room and see if you can find anything to pretty up the room for Coleman?” Miss Ida’s eyes were shining and her cheeks were pinker than usual; she was that happy about Coleman. But it was wishful thinking I’d find a scrap or jot in our house to make the room pretty. All you see in the empty rooms upstairs are mice tracks and dust bunnies. I don’t like going in those rooms. They smell like mothballs and old, old dust. If there’s ghosts in this house, that’s where they are. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but those rooms are sad and lonesome, and make they me want to cry.
Our house is named Four Oaks, and in olden days, it was part of a big plantation. I’ve seen pictures of it when Miss Ida was a little girl, and the house looked grand. It’s run down now and showing its age. Two of the big ol’ live oaks it’s named for are dead and gone, but the other two are doing fine and look mighty pretty with the Spanish moss hanging all over ‘em. There’s tall magnolia trees in front, too, and if you don’t look too close and notice the peeling paint, the outside of the house is all right.
But every room is as naked as a jaybird, except the few we live in. I didn’t remind Miss Ida of that. Miss Ida believes in miracles, and Coleman comin’
a miracle, so if Miss Ida thinks furniture and pictures and rugs and such might appear, maybe they will.
If I had my druthers, some clothes would turn up. I don’t know how we’re goin’ to dress Coleman. I have just enough clothes to stay clean, and everything Aunt Polly and Miss Ida own is old and worn out. But I know the Lord will provide.
I didn’t bother to traipse through all those empty rooms, but I did what I could for our bedroom. I swept and dusted till the floor and the furniture were spankin’ clean, and I picked some of the pink roses growing on the pasture fence and put them in a jar of water on the dresser. When I finished, the room smelled like a flower garden.
It was a good thing, too, because Coleman stank like William Greenhill, our neighbor’s billy goat. I never saw or smelled such a dirty child. She’s a little bit of a thing—I’m way taller than she is—and her hair was so matted and dirty I couldn’t tell what color it was, or her skin, either. When she opened her eyes wide, I could see they were green, but the rest of her—well! I was sure if we washed her in the tub, she’d turn into a mudpie. I thought we should put the hose on her first, but I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“Polly, you go run a bath for Coleman. I’ll see to supper. I expect you’d like a bath before we eat, wouldn’t you, honey?” Miss Ida’s voice was real soft, like she was tryin’ not to spook a bird. Did she think Coleman was scared? Coleman didn’t look scared to me. I’d have called her hopeful-looking, like a sparrow waiting by the bird feeder for crumbs.