The cold winter rain started out as sporadic drops when she left the inconspicuous home hiding dark deeds behind its walls. When she stepped off the bus on the outskirts of town (much to the dismay of the annoyed driver), the droplets morphed into a heavy downpour, along with a thick blanket of fog.
Carolyn sighed and continued trudging through the secondary streets skirting the edge of town. The past thirty minutes were spent in a painful blur, each step slow while fighting to overcome waves of dizziness and nausea. She had no choice but to steer her sore body clear of the main thoroughfares of downtown Camden. Though not many, there were a few streetlights dotting the walkways, and even with the viscous fog coating the air, a moving body could still be spotted.
It was Saturday night, the air frigid and the streets slick with water and a bit treacherous, yet some people would be out and about. War and Peace was headlining at the Malco Theater—a movie she had looked forward to seeing with Jefferson—and though unsure what time it was, Carolyn guessed it was close to 10:30 p.m. Those who’d attended the 8:05 p.m. showing would soon swarm the streets.
She didn’t want to be spotted by anyone, preferring to keep the shameful action done to her body earlier a closely-guarded secret. She’d paid almost fifty dollars—an entire month’s pay—and would do whatever necessary to never let anyone else get a whiff of the dirtiness permanently etched inside her soul.
Enough already knew, and Carolyn feared she was tempting fate by sneaking back home, but the pull, the overwhelming urge to be cocooned in familiarity, was too strong to fight.
The wretched nightmare of what she did would follow her to the grave. Carolyn wrestled to tamp it down and tuck the memories away inside the deepest recesses of her mind. Though she didn’t have much of one, what little reputation she had would be ruined if ever discovered by some random townsfolk venturing out in the frigid weather.
The thought of Miss Maud or even her strange husband, Clyde, finding out what their charge had done in the adjoining county made a shiver sprint up her back. And that is exactly what would happen if Carolyn didn’t remain carefully hidden. Camden was a small town full of grousing harpies with two-sided mouths—one for spouting virtues, platitudes, and Bible verses and the other for spewing vicious gossip about anyone and everyone. The venom-filled barbs didn’t care if the subject was a close friend, family member, politician, or clergy.
Passing by the ostentatious sign that read Camden – Queen City of the South, Carolyn grimaced. There wasn’t anything stately or royal about the small town perched on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. The prosperity from the steamboat era had waned, giving way to the oil, gas and timber industry. The stench of rotten eggs filled the summer air from the paper mills at the edge of town. The only other businesses that flourished in the once humming town were the Grapette plant and Camark Pottery.
“If only I’d been able to work at those places instead of the silly grocery store! If I had, perhaps I wouldn’t be in the situation I am now,” Carolyn muttered to herself.
As she passed the old McCollum-Chidester House, made famous by being the headquarters of the Union soldiers during the Civil War, Carolyn scowled at the thought of damn Yankees stinking up the town.
Keeping close to the shadows as she rounded the corner onto Greening Street, every inch of her body screamed for her to stop moving. She pushed on instead of succumbing to the temptation to rest. It was only a few more blocks to traipse across until she reached Clifton Street and crept inside the stately colonial she’d called home for several years. If she could make it around back without being detected, she could simply climb the trellis to her room and sneak inside. She’d seen Leah do it numerous times over the years, and it looked easy. Of course, Leah’s journeys up and down the trellis had been performed without a body wracked with pain.
“They should have let me stay. I couldn’t help crying! Too much blood and pain!” Carolyn whispered to herself, breath expelling from her lungs in plumes of steam.
The intense cramping in her lower regions made her bite down with force to keep the yelps of anguish inside. The near-frozen raindrops peppered her face like tiny shards of glass, turning the warm tears leaking from her eyes into cold dribbles.
She should have been more prepared, asked Leah deeper, probing questions about the before, during, and after sections of the procedures, yet she didn’t. Ashamed, frightened, and overwrought with worry, Carolyn didn’t think about such trivial things like packing extra sets of hosiery, warmer clothes, an old pair of shoes to wear, or how she’d be in such agony hours after the abortion was completed. A wave of anger flourished inside her chest, yet not enough to warm her frozen soul and limbs. Leah should have told her what to expect since she’d endured the procedure twice.
Leah gave off the air of a proper lady, playing the game in front of Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Crawford and all their friends, yet Carolyn, Cindy, and Claire knew the real Leah—the girl who frequented the dive bars the soldiers from Shumaker Naval Ammunition Base hung out at, including The Pines and The Rendezvous Club—was really a shady young woman with loose morals who made more money in one night than Carolyn made in two months.
Leah had promised her things would be okay, that she could stay overnight with the “doctor” and his “wife” in case of complications, and the next day, she would feel fine while riding the bus back from the fake “visit to El Dorado,” looking for work and a place to live.
No one would ever know about the pregnancy since Carolyn hadn’t started showing yet. Leah assured Carolyn with a lopsided grin and warm hand gently patting Carolyn’s knotted shoulder while lying through crooked, yellowed teeth stained from smoking cigarettes.
She rued those mistakes with each rain-soaked step. The warm stockings she’d worn on her way to end the nightmare growing inside her belly were only trapping the cold rain against her fragile skin. Rivulets of clear liquid ran down her face, dripping off the tip of her nose, following a haphazard path down her torso and ending in her soggy shoes.
An umbrella would have been welcome, yet it was another item her frazzled mind forgot to consider. The past two weeks were a blur of hysteria.
Like a naïve fool, Carolyn assumed Jefferson would smile and offer a marriage proposal at the news of his impending fatherhood. That was not even close to what happened. Harsh reality balled up its fist and sucker-punched Carolyn square in the face, knocking her off the ledge of fairy tale and fantasy.
Jefferson Osborne, Carolyn’s one and only lover, the man who’d worked beside her for months at the Piggly Wiggly after drifting into town with nothing but good looks and a hot car, freaked. Jefferson, who’d whispered snippets of undying love in the backseat of his souped-up coupe on New Year’s Eve, ran like a startled chicken.
The husky words he’d spoken that melted Carolyn’s shields and led to a night of passion were gone, replaced by angry growls of Carolyn’s stupidity for getting “knocked up” and how he wouldn’t raise an “ankle-biter with the likes of you! You ain’t nothin’ but poor, white trash. Ain’t even got a family! No lineage, no nothin’!”
Enraged and heartbroken, Carolyn shot back that Jefferson told her he’d left Pine Bluff and wound up in Camden to escape from the ties to his, as he put it, “worthless family” and had no right to criticize.
Jefferson responded by slapping her in the face, and the relationship was over before really having a chance to grow. He fled town, and probably Arkansas, in the middle of the night. When he didn’t show up for work, the managers and other employees of the Piggly Wiggly offered consoling words like “Don’t worry, Carolyn, he’ll be back” or “Boys—they’ve got to sow their oats before settlin’ down” or even the occasional, “He was too shady, too wild. You’re better off with a solid, homegrown boy.”
They were right.
Carolyn considered herself a good girl, unlike Leah and the others. She never went with them to hang out with the rowdy soldiers—she’d developed a thick distaste for the men when they came into the store to shop. Jefferson was another story. He was good looking and somewhat rebellious—a small town’s James Dean. Every girl in Camden wanted him and Carolyn felt a burst of pride when he’d picked her as his girlfriend.
What was said behind her back, whispered in hushed tones to eager ears, eyes dancing with delight while offering conjectured opinions about the demise of the relationship, was a different story. Carolyn had the misfortune of overhearing the stinging words one day as a group of employees gabbed in the stock room.
She’d worked the rest of her shift in silence, refusing to add more tinder to the stoked fires of Grade-A gossip. Instead of taking the bus home that night, Carolyn had walked the entire way, letting the hot tears come hard and fast as the cold night air dried them away. When she arrived home, no one questioned the reasons behind her flushed, red face because everyone at the Crawford house assumed it was from the frigid air.
They’d been way off base, just as she’d been about the father of her child.
When it dawned on her Jefferson wasn’t coming back, Carolyn’s mind went into panic mode. Breaking down one night, she’d told her roommate, Leah, the awful news. Between sobbing and pacing around the small area they shared and called home, Leah offered a way out. Carolyn latched on to the lifeline as though she truly were drowning in the Ouachita River.
She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, but no matter how hard she tried to keep them in, the tears continued to stream down her face. She wondered why God hated her so much. Miss Maud said the Lord loves everyone, but Carolyn had serious doubts. If some being truly existed in the stars above, why did he decide Carolyn deserved a life full of pain and misery? Hadn’t she already endured enough?
More than anything, Carolyn yearned to curl up in a ball under a warm blanket and disappear inside dreams of her youth, yet she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. She’d disciplined herself not to reminisce on the happy memories of childhood while awake. They were too heart-wrenching for the conscious realm.
Unfortunately, the emotional impact of what she’d done overrode the mental shields she’d erected.
Legally an adult for less than a month, it didn’t matter. Carolyn Singleton craved her mother’s calming presence—her warm spirit and loving, non-judgmental eyes. The urge to rest her weary head on the soft lap of the woman who’d given birth to her, raised her alone and gently murmured each night that “everything will be all right, my angel,” made a lump of salty tears press against her parched throat.
Thirteen years hadn’t been enough time. Charlene Robinson Singleton, wife of Corporal Reggie Singleton, killed in combat in 1952 in Korea, tried her best to raise their only child alone. Three months later, body worn out from working two jobs, mind still processing the loss of her mate, and soul unhealed from the loss, Charlene’s heart took its last beat, leaving Carolyn Renee Singleton a ward of the state. She’d been a frightened wisp of a child surrounded by callous adults shuffling her around like an annoying toy until Maud Crawford appeared in the judge’s office, her stern face and tight red curls interspersed with flecks of gray, intervened, and offered “the poor child” a place to live and thrive.
Ever since that day so many years ago, Carolyn Singleton grew up in a household reared by an elderly couple who were kind and gentle at times yet also strict. Chores were many and arduous, grades were expected to be high, and once graduation happened, a job secured and rent paid each week. Maud and Clyde told them the rules would shape and mold the wayward girls into proper wives later in life. They were “building the groundwork by removing the rough edges of their unpolished previous upbringings.”
An ugly sneer pulled Carolyn’s lips upward. If the uptight Crawfords knew what their charges were really doing under the cover of darkness, they’d keel over from shock.
Carolyn kept quiet and did as she was told, never once complaining. To keep from going insane, she counted the days until her eighteenth birthday, knowing she would be granted her freedom to leave.
She’d planned on departing with Jefferson and starting a new life in a town full of less secrets and more anonymity.
The steady thrum of pelting rain and the squish-squash, squish-squash of her footfalls were the only sounds reaching her ears. She hated almost every aspect of living in such a small town, yet tonight, as she wound her way through the tangle of streets, she was grateful for the minimal population. She hadn’t seen one automobile in over ten minutes, which was a relief. Though chilled to the bone as the rain seeped through the threadbare clothes she wore, the rain seemed to have kept a major portion of the residents of Camden, which hovered near the fifteen-thousand mark, inside their warm homes.
Tonight, the number had decreased by one.
Carolyn shuddered at the memory of lying on the linen-covered table, probably once a place used to dine on traditional southern delicacies, letting a stranger probe and touch her in places only one other had before, causing immeasurable pain rather than pleasure.
She shouldn’t have gone alone. Leah should have come along…offered her support. She’d considered telling Miss Maud initially yet decided she couldn’t stand another lecture about being a proper southern lady, one who holds her virginity up as a trophy to dangle at potential suitors. The elderly woman would always say, “A proper lady waits to offer the gift of her purity to a man worthy enough to value it.”
Maud had been right all along. About everything. Carolyn felt a twinge of guilt for the bad thoughts about the woman earlier. Though stoic and tough, Maud Crawford was a good woman with a heart for the unfortunate.
A sputter of fresh tears erupted from Carolyn’s eyes at the memory as she turned onto Clifton Street, eyeing the sprawling Crawford home shrouded in soupy mist. The memory of the first day she arrived and how overwhelmed and excited she’d been to call the beautiful place home made her chest ache.
“Stop it. It’s over and time to move on. Get inside and warm up, rest, and then tomorrow, pack up and truly go to El Dorado. Leave this horrid town and never look back. No more chores. No more Clyde skulking around the corners, watching all us girls with his dark, unreadable eyes. No more standing on my feet for hours at the Piggly Wiggly. No more lectures from Miss Maud about purity and virtues.”
The quiet murmurings of mental assurances abruptly halted as a set of headlights pierced through the thick veil of fog. The sight was followed by the sound of an engine greeting Carolyn’s ears. On instinct, fearing it was Clyde returning home from the movie, she darted behind the closest magnolia tree at the edge of Mrs. Berg’s property and crouched down. No, it couldn’t be Clyde. He always went to the bar after a movie. Maybe it was later than she thought?
The thundering of her heart nearly drowned out Tab Hunter’s “Young Love” blaring from the radio as the dark sedan passed by. Another round of silent tears appeared as Tab’s smooth voice sang about true love, first love, and undying devotion. The song made her think of Jefferson’s betrayal. Carolyn clamped her hand over her mouth to keep the sobs inside her throat.
Holding still until she couldn’t hear anything but the rain once more, Carolyn stood, gaze sweeping the left and right sides of the street for any more vehicles or random residents on their porches. Seeing no one, she darted across the street. She still hurt, yet the close call of being discovered set her nerves singing, allowing her to ignore the soreness.
Latching on to the trellis, Carolyn prayed for strength to climb and not lose her grip on the slick wood. If she fell, she’d break her neck. Another was said that Miss Maud’s scary dog, Dal, wouldn’t hear her over the pelting rain. Desperate to override the fear making her hands shake, she pictured herself as her favorite heroine—Nancy Drew—on a mission to rescue or save some hapless soul from certain death. Taking a deep breath, she clawed her up to the window, pushed up the sash, and was halfway inside when the porch light in the back flicked on at the same time the low rumble of a vehicle sounded in the driveway.
Clyde must be home! Oh no!
Dal barked once from downstairs.
The faint, familiar lilt of Miss Maud’s voice drifted up the stairs as she shushed him.
The sound of footsteps crossing the hardwood floors made her stomach shudder.
With but a split second to decide whether to continue forward into the room or slip back outside and risk being seen by Clyde, Carolyn opted for the first choice as a plausible lie about her predicament formed easily inside her mind.
I’ll just tell her Jefferson and I had a big fight after he pressured me to do things an unmarried woman doesn’t do! That I thought we were eloping but Jefferson’s plan was to lure me out alone and have his way with me. I’ll apologize for lying about El Dorado when I was really out with Jefferson, but that I came home the second I understood what Jefferson had really wanted.
The concocted excuse waned as Carolyn’s hands touched the cool hardwood. Just as the first leg made it through the windowsill, she realized the footsteps stopped.
Dal growled low and throaty as the sound of heavy footsteps echoed from the kitchen.
The soaked hair on Carolyn’s skin stood erect. Unexplainable tension—no, foreboding—settled over her mind.
“What are you doin’ here?”
The question, a mixture of irritation and fear, was never finished. Another ominous grumble from the dog’s muzzle ceased in mid-growl, just like his mistress’s question.
“Leave him alone!” Maud yelled.
The plea was followed by two distinct thumps. A weird human grunt came next and then…dead silence.
Carolyn’s senses buzzed with fear as strange sounds floated up the stairwell—footsteps and more thumps and the faint chatter of some show on the television downstairs. The familiar, grating squeak of the kitchen screen door was next. Contorting her neck at an unnatural angle, she stared out the window.
Faint wisps gray fog swirled away from the intrusion of the porch light. Expecting to see Clyde’s vehicle in the rear parking area, Carolyn saw an image that would change the course of her life.
The sedan wasn’t Clyde’s, and someone dressed in all black—a man she assumed, based on the build—carried Miss Maud’s unmoving body like he was hauling a sack of grain wearing a floral print dress over his broad shoulders. The woman’s head lolled around, bouncing off the intruder’s back with each step. In a flash, the trunk was opened and her limp body tossed inside without care. The dark figure stopped and looked around once after closing the trunk, searching, Carolyn assumed, to ensure he was alone.
The waves of light caught his face for a brief second—long enough for the breath to leave her lungs in a giant whoosh.
She recognized him.
Oh, God. Please don’t let him see me. Does he know I’m here? Is he coming back to get me too? What in the world has he done? Why?
With a few quick steps, he slipped into the driver’s side and the engine purred to life. Without turning on the headlights, the car shot forward and disappeared into the haze of fog and rain.
Unsure what just happened or what to do, her mind gridlocked. After what seemed like five minutes, her arms began to quake from holding the same position. Fearing they would give out and she would tumble onto the floor, she finished climbing inside.
The shakes from fear and cold made her teeth chatter. Dazed, sore, and so terrified she couldn’t even gasp, her mind wouldn’t engage. For another several minutes, Carolyn tried to process what she’d witnessed yet came up blank. Why? What in the world could a boring, sixty-plus-year-old woman have done to deserve to be snatched up and—dear God, kidnapped?—in the middle of the night by him?
Carolyn Singleton’s mind suddenly went from neutral to high gear. She didn’t waste any more time trying to figure out why. She may be poor, white trash like Jefferson said, but she wasn’t stupid.
Something sinister, something really, really ugly and disturbing just happened.
She wanted no part of it.
For a split second, she contemplated calling the police. How in the world would she explain her appearance? Where she’d been? Why she was all wet and why she’d climbed up the trellis rather than going through the front door? With a quick jerk of her head, she shook the idea from her mind. It was too risky.
The only thoughts controlling her now were simple—change clothes, pack all she owned, clean up the traces of the water from her soaked clothes pooled on the floor, and get the hell out of Camden, Arkansas—forever—before she was the next victim.
Stripping off her clothes, Carolyn crept over to the chifferobe she shared with Leah. In the dark, she yanked out what she hoped were her clothes, tossing them onto the bed. In less than a minute, she was dressed in a warm, dry set. Then she dropped to her knees and felt under the bed. The old suitcase, left there by a previous boarder who died the year prior, slid out without a sound. After wrapping her wet clothes in an extra pillow case, she stuffed them alongside the dry ones. Snatching a fluffy towel from the dresser, she wiped up all the water and then deposited it, too, into the overstuffed suitcase.
Once finished, she didn’t even think about the ramifications of rifling through Leah’s private drawers. She knew Leah kept a wad of cash hidden in the back corner in an old brassiere and had no doubts that if the situation were reversed, Leah wouldn’t hesitate stealing from her for one second.
Feeling around, she found the bra and was surprised it contained a large bulge. Nestled next to the other undergarments was a small clutch. She decided to take it as well, hoping more cash was squirreled away inside. Without counting the amount, Carolyn’s last item was a rain slicker. Once dressed with suitcase in hand, she stared out the window, terrified of climbing back down.
She had little choice. The thought of going downstairs made her shudder. She didn’t stop to think about what others would think about her fleeing into the night, perhaps blaming the disappearance of her guardian on Carolyn. There wasn’t enough time to consider all options or think rationally.
Carolyn’s thoughts were all about survival.
Tossing the suitcase out the window, thrilled the rain had let up, Carolyn heard it land with a soft thump on the soaked ground. While shimmying down the trellis, she prayed the latch remained closed rather than busting open and spilling the contents all over the backyard.
It held, and it was the first thing to go right for her in over three months.
Carolyn fled as though the devil was right behind her, the pain in her body nothing more than a distant memory. She didn’t look back, didn’t stop, until she was on the other side of town at the bus depot. The initial idea to escape to El Dorado passed when she noticed there was one bus headed to New Orleans. On a whim, she purchased a one-way ticket to the Big Easy.
Once on the bus with only a smattering of passengers—ones she didn’t recognize thank Heavens—Carolyn took a deep breath as they rumbled down Highway 7. With tired eyes, she watched the city she’d grown to hate and now feared fade into the distance. Good riddance to royal rubbish! The Queen City was slowly dying anyway as poverty crept in from the shadows like ghoulish monsters, gobbling up unsuspecting victims.
The rain had stopped, yet the fog clung tight to the evening. Once the final puff of rolling steam from the last manufacturing plant disappeared, she let out a long sigh. The lull of the engine and the surrounding darkness tried to lure her mind into sleep, but Carolyn fought to remain awake, fearful he might be around any corner, any crevice, waiting to pounce like a pole cat, just as he’d done to Miss Maud.
Fidgeting in the seat, Carolyn grimaced. She needed something to do, to concentrate on, rather than worry about what was behind the nightmare on Clifton Street. Unlatching the suitcase, she extracted the cash from the bra and counted. She nearly squealed with delight—almost fifteen-hundred dollars! After cramming the wad inside her wallet, she decided to see what was inside the small clutch, hoping additional cash was hidden inside or maybe some lipstick or powder. She pilfered around yet discovered nothing to make her look more presentable tucked away inside.
However, what she did find made the wheels of her tired, stressed-out mind spin even faster.
She gaped with wild-eyed awe at the social security card and Arkansas driver’s license, both in the name of the “wayward” girl living in the Crawford home until she died in a car accident after a night out drinking and carousing at The Pines with several rowdy soldiers.
They were the same age, born only two months apart.
For the first time in weeks, Carolyn let a small smile appear. She could use the documents to create a new identity and there was enough cash to disappear and start over, never returning to the wretched town and all the nasty secrets it held. Maybe the entity Miss Maud believed in finally took pity her because it seemed a miracle just happened: she’d just been granted a chance at a new life. Two pieces of flimsy paper offered her a way to escape and stay alive in case he knew she’d been upstairs and witnessed his despicable deed.
Closing the purse, she said a silent prayer that God would intervene and do the same for Miss Maud.
The oily rumble inside her stomach told her it was too late for the feisty old woman to be saved by anyone, heavenly being or not.
Blood Loss is slated for release on September 4, 2017 in ebook, print and audio. I'm thrilled to announce Rebecca Roberts will once again provide the narration just as she did for Blood Ties, the first book in the series.
I regret that up until approached by a former resident of Camden, Arkansas, about this eerie case, I had never heard of Maud Crawford or the controversy surrounding her disappearance the evening of March 2, 1957. After several long conversations with this man and his perceptions on the mystery, I was hooked. I called my mother and told her our original concept for Blood Loss needed to be put on the backburner. We talked for over an hour, each of us drawn to the events in Southern Arkansas sixty years prior.
The finger of blame has been pointed at several people, yet the truth is, no one truly knows what happened that fateful evening. This fictional tale, based on true events, started out with the words “What if?” What if all the speculation and suspicion about the suspects was way off base? What if someone did witness what happened that night yet fled from fear they might be the next victim? What if the person, or persons, responsible for Maud Crawford’s disappearance stemmed from a direction no one ever looked? What if it wasn’t just a small town cover up?
Since the two main characters—retired Detective LiAnn Tuck and former private investigator and LiAnn’s daughter, Karina Summers—moved to Arkansas and took over running an independent living facility housing seniors who were alive in 1957, what better segue into exploring this real mystery?
The fictional conclusions of the final resting place of Maud Crawford are just that—fictional. In no way are they to be considered anything other than a product of our imaginations. My heart aches for the family members of all those involved and the incredible pain at never having the opportunity to experience some sort of closure on what really happened on the night of March 2, 1957. Maud Crawford was an amazing woman and her legacy lives on through all the organizations she helped create in Arkansas, and we both pray the truth will surface one day and justice will be meted out to the person or persons responsible for extinguishing a bright light in a dark world way before her time on this earth was over.
Preorder your copy here:
B&N: - coming soon