Excerpt from A Murder Among Friends
[From Chapter One] Summers in Texas are usually hot and humid, with unrelenting drought cracking both earth and concrete. The summer of 2005 was no different. A full month before Hurricane Katrina claimed over 1800 souls, Catherine Nance Newberry was about to weather a different storm. On Monday, July 18, 2005, she awoke at seven o’clock, as she did most mornings since her first trimester had passed. After taking a quick sponge bath and putting on a bright orange sundress, Catherine waddled into her kitchen rubbing her protruding stomach. As she sat down in a bright yellow wooden chair, she said, “I know you’re hot sweetheart, but you’ll get used to the Texas heat.” She blew out a slow breath and placed both hands around her stomach. “I hope you have freckles like me,” she laughed. Two wrens squabbled over a tiny speck of something outside the lone kitchen window. Catherine watched them, imagining her and her sister Eva-Sue as the warring birds. When the battle ended and the birds flew away, Catherine struggled to the refrigerator, snatched a carton of orange juice from the top shelf, and took three tiny sips. The wall phone rang.
“It’s Stephen, how are my girls feeling today?”
“Fine, Stephen. I was just having some orange juice.” Catherine smiled. She patted her stomach, recalling Stephen’s excitement when the doctor said she was carrying a baby girl. Stephen’s partner Thomas had not seemed as joyous.
“Great. Are you craving anything today?”
“Not at this very moment,” said Catherine. “I’m gonna rest today…I’m gonna stay in today.” Catherine moved a tuft of curly brown hair from her forehead and smoothed it into the lax bun she wore most days.
“Eat lots and lots of carrots…for your eyes, you know…or little Stephanie’s eyes, I should say.”
Catherine laughed. “Uh, you mean Thomasina, don’t you? Thomas might be firm on that.”
“Uh uh, she’s Stephanie, trust me…Thomas will let me have what I want, he usually does.”
Catherine sneezed, then coughed. “Well, hopefully she’ll have your baby blues.”
“Bless you…are you taking your allergy pills?”
“Yes Stephen, you know I am.”
“Good…I hope our Stephanie gets your green eyes…and thick hair like yours.”
Catherine coughed again. “Uh no, I wouldn’t wish that on any child…besides, you guys wouldn’t know what to do with hair like mine!”
“Sure we do… we have you to tell us, right?”
Catherine heard Stephen’s muffled laughter and knew he had put his hand over his mouth, which was what he usually did.
“Do you have enough of everything to last a few days? Doctor Addleton said he didn’t want you driving by yourself, remember?”
“I’ve got salad, that broccoli and cabbage you brought over yesterday, and the freezer’s full…got a pork roast, a brisket, and salmon steaks ready to go. I’m fine, trust me.”
“And the driving? You’re not to go anywhere without me or Thomas, right?”
“I said I’m gonna stay in today, didn’t you hear me?” Catherine cleared her throat, hoping the sound softened her irritation. She knew Stephen was a worrier. Thomas, on the other hand, was eternally optimistic. She adored them both, but her mood changed often as the child within her grew stronger. Catherine recalled the day she had decided to volunteer at the Skinner Foundation as a surrogate for a childless couple; several couples had talked with Catherine. Stephen and Thomas had interviewed her three times before they asked her to be their surrogate. Later, they told Catherine they had decided to select the surrogate first and then decide which one of them would donate the sperm. If the chosen surrogate were Caucasian, Thomas would be the donor; if the chosen surrogate were a woman of color, then Stephen would be the donor. They had said they wanted a biracial child to grow up in their biracial household.
Catherine shook her head to clear the daydream. “What’d you say?”
“Just making sure you don’t need anything, okay? Thomas and I will be in Austin for the Alliance thing—I reminded you about it yesterday, remember? Anyway…let’s see, today’s the eighteenth and we’ll be back late Thursday…that’s the twenty-first I think. If you need anything call….”
“Yes, yes…I have the numbers already.” Catherine leaned her back against the counter. “Little whatever-her-name-will-be won’t come out for at least another three weeks or so…don’t worry. I haven’t had any twinges or nothing.” Catherine saw no point in telling Stephen about the stab-like spikes she felt whenever the baby changed position.
“You know we worry…what about little Mimi? Does she….”
Catherine cut him off. “Nope…my mother’s keeping her until after everything’s over. Mimi loves being out there, you know.” She frowned and shook her head, commanding her mind not to recall her mother’s words when Catherine had announced she had volunteered as a surrogate at the Skinner Foundation.
“Yeah, peace and quiet out there…she’ll miss you lots, you know.”
Catherine’s stomach muscles tightened. She had never told Stephen or Thomas what her mother had said about them and the Skinner Foundation. And she had never told them her mother had demanded Catherine allow three-year-old Mimi to stay at the ranch during the last three months of Catherine’s pregnancy. Catherine blew out a slow breath. “I know, I know, and that’s what I love about you…you always know the right thing to say.” Tears materialized at the corner of her eyes.
After almost a full minute of silence, Stephen said, “So, be sure to call Marcus and Sam about anything, right? You need me to give you their numbers?”
“You forget, my dear Stephen, I knew Marcus waaaaay before you did.” Catherine wiped her eyes with a yellow kitchen towel.
“You can still call me if…you know, if you need to….”
“I won’t need to call you all the way in Austin. I promise, if anything comes up, I’ll call Marcus.”
“Okay, I feel better already then.”
“I’m glad you do.” Catherine closed her eyes.
“Okay, I gotta go…we’re leaving from Love Field and the traffic, you know.”
“I remember…go, I don’t need anything. And if I do, I’ll call Marcus.”
“Or Sam, right? If you can’t get one don’t wait around, call the other okay?”
Catherine rubbed her forehead. “Yes I know, Stephen…now quit worrying. Nothing will happen and you’re only gone for a few days. I’m a grown-up, remember!”
“Okay, okay…we’ll call you tonight, then.”
“That’s not necessary, but if you must.”
“Okay, we’ll call you tomorrow, then.”
“That’s fine, Stephen. Have a fun trip.” Catherine hung up the telephone. She suddenly craved peanut butter. She turned on a small television mounted beneath a white microwave oven as she spread chunky peanut butter on a slice of whole-wheat bread. When she tuned in the noon news, a gray-haired man with black glasses came into view, reciting information about a gruesome murder.
Newsman: “The body of a woman found in a wooded area near The Colony back on June thirteenth has been identified as Leticia Irene Edsele, age thirty-one. Miss Edsele was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.”
Newsman: “No signs of the child were found in the area.”
Catherine stared at the small screen. An aerial view of where the body had been found filled the right side of the screen while a young woman holding a huge microphone chimed in on the left side of the screen.
Woman: “That’s right Dave, a source who doesn’t want to be identified confirmed that police are investigating the group Revelation Thirteen, a so-called Christian denomination that preaches the end times are near. Police were seen at the group’s twenty-acre compound near Nacogdoches.”
Catherine gaped at a photograph of the victim in happier times that filled the screen for fifteen seconds.
Woman: “If you recall, members of Revelation Thirteen protested Staff Sergeant Edwin Toussant’s funeral two weeks ago in Waco due to allegations the Army wanted him out because he was gay. Sergeant Toussant was one of four men killed when their helicopter unexpectedly crashed during training exercises in Iraq. Sergeant Toussant also served on the board of the Skinner Foundation, an organization that matches surrogates to gay couples wanting children.”
Catherine shivered. She clicked the station selector until she found a cooking show. As images of lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and red onions filled the screen, the doorbell chimed. Catherine staggered to the front door and stood near its left edge. “Who is it?”
“For who…or what?”
“Delivery for Catherine Nance Newberry, Ma’am…not sure what’s in the box.”
Catherine turned the deadbolt and opened the door. A tall, middle-aged man with khaki-colored skin and large, drooping eyes looked down on her. The black stubble on his lower cheeks and chin made his flaring nostrils look larger than their reality. The man wore a black short-sleeved shirt with the name “Walter” affixed on a patch over the left pocket.
“Are you Catherine Nance Newberry, Ma’am?”
“Yes.” Catherine eyed a large box in the man’s arms. She mentally noted that the man had not blinked.
“Says to deliver July 18th…you need to sign, Ma’am…I can tote it in.”
“Is it heavy?” Catherine stared at the droopy eyes.
“Weight here says twenty pounds, Ma’am.”
“If you don’t mind, could you put it on the coffee table for me…please.”
“Glad to, Ma’am.”
The man took two steps and was almost in the center of the room. He looked around the room before setting down the package.
“Where do I need to sign?” Catherine smiled.
“The bottom, Ma’am.”
Catherine accepted the clipboard and scanned the page on top, focusing on the return address. “Gucci? I never ordered anything from there.” She looked up, expecting to meet the man’s eyes, but the man was scanning the room. His gaze lingered on the short hallway that led from the living room to the bedroom on the right and the kitchen on the left. The hairs on the back of Catherine’s neck flexed. She scribbled her name on the form and held out the clipboard. “Thank you so much for bringing it in…as you can see, normal things sometimes get rough for me.” Catherine gently rubbed her abdomen.
“I understand, got two kids myself.”
Catherine tried to smile under the man’s unblinking stare. She moved toward the front door. “Thanks, again.”
Catherine watched the man’s long legs as he took two steps that put him outside on the front steps.
“Looks like you ready to pop.”
Catherine looked away from the man’s steady stare. “I’ve only got a month to go.” She stroked her stomach and looked down. The man wore faded, dilapidated jogging shoes.
“Good luck, Ma’am.”
Catherine closed the door, locked it, then peered out a window to the right of the door. She did not see the man, or a delivery truck, or any other vehicle on the street.