Fallen Idol, Faded Star
I understood the bewilderment of my siblings and the townspeople when I moved into Richard Mitchell’s house. A large portion of whatever wealth he once possessed had passed first to lawyers in preparation for the trial and then to assorted merchants around the globe as he sought refuge from his personal demons.
Nor did the magic of his name offset his austere economic state. Both fame and notoriety dimmed a decade prior to my introduction to him, although the public would have forgiven him everything if he had written of the scandal or shared lurid details. Ultimately, it was his unpardonable silence rather than his reputed sins that caused movie offers to disappear and book contracts to be withdrawn. When he later left the country, his banishment was complete.
Not even his physical features survived intact. A pallid complexion replaced the sun-bronzed tan and in the early months of my arrival, he fought to retain the muscle tone of the body millions of women once lusted for. Despite his efforts, he was only able to hold the deterioration enough to steadfastly refuse a wheelchair. It was the blue eyes that had peered from countless magazine photographs that remained as they had always been. Eyes of a blue that could not be immediately categorized. Darker than arctic, not so deep as violet; similar to a morning glory with sapphire flecks.
I knew little about the man when I agreed to care for him and I tolerated speculation of my motives except from those who persisted in believing that Richard was a murderer who purchased his freedom. Their belief was understandable, yet as I watched him prepare for death, I shed early wonderings and fervently hoped that the truth I had been told was the truth of what had occurred. I wanted the tears I wept for Richard Mitchell to be deserved.
It was May the 7th, I think, or maybe the 8th; the exact day is unimportant. Mama and I were on the front porch enjoying a mid-morning break of lemonade. We finally finished clearing the attic, a task that stretched from two days to three. The heat was rising with the humidity scheduled to top out at eighty percent or so; the stickiness mild compared to what it would be within a few weeks. Dusty streaks colored my jeans and Mama’s yellow cotton print dress was damp across her shoulders.
“At least it’s done now,” she said quietly. “Leroy can take the boxes to the dump this evening.”
I shrugged. “No sense waiting for that, Mama. I’ll do it right after lunch. They’re not very heavy and I can manage just fine.”
She rocked for a moment without comment, her fingers stroking the arm of the cane bottom chair. Her hair that had once been sable brown like mine, had silvered rather than whitened. She plucked a strand stuck to her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. My coloring was hers, although I preferred a short, layered cut to deal with our fine, flyaway hair.
“Ellie, I do appreciate it, but it’s not like you haven’t done more than your fair share already.”
I briefly considered Becky’s martyr approach, but I wasn’t my sister in more ways than one.
“I honestly don’t mind,” I repeated. “Besides, I need to pick up some things at the store.”
She nodded and sighed. “He had such a hard life, Ellie. He always tried to do what was right and wanted to take care of us all, but whatever happened to him over there never let go. He wasn’t the same afterwards.”
Another woman might have wept those words, but resignation to my father’s ways had replaced Mama’s tears by the time I was in the first grade. Daddy hadn’t been a scorned drunk, for he maintained enough bearing to be granted the status of “shell-shocked” from his year in Vietnam. No one in Denton, Georgia knew the term Delayed Stress Syndrome.
Mama was correct, Daddy tried. He opened the gas station at five-thirty every morning and closed at five-thirty each evening – willing to stay longer if a body was in need of his help. Dinner was half an hour after he came through the back door and by eight o’clock he would be midway through the bottle of bourbon. A pint to help him sleep, sometimes more if the nightmares refused to be quelled. He did his drinking in private, so the sheriff had nothing against him. He shut himself away from us as well, withdrawn rather than angry, so there were no domestic disturbances to worry the neighbors. Daddy had been a respectable, gentle drunk who slowly allowed his liver to rot past the point of treatment. The church-going ladies who could brand a family with a single sentence and the barber shop sages declared acceptance rather than condemnation for the man who could not heal himself, nor allow others to try.
“There were good times, too,” Mama continued with strength, not denial. “Days when your Daddy felt good, when he could do things with you and Becky and Leroy.”
“Yes Mama, there sure were.”
What else could I say? When I was young Leroy used to tell me what Daddy had been like before, but I never knew how much was accurate and how much wishful thinking. Then again, what difference did it make? For me, it was a part of my upbringing, a dysfunctional hole in what I imagined a family should be, although we were spared the beatings that other drunken fathers inflicted. Our scars were of emotional withdrawal rather than heavy, angry hands. It was Leroy who taught me to ride a bike, bait a hook and drive a car. My conversations with my father had been so limited as to be almost the stuff of imagination, bare recognition of my efforts to win his heart. Efforts I gave up before my ninth birthday.
Mama was silent for a moment, her slender body still, gray eyes staring beyond me into a past where I think she’d been happy. Like the family photograph of us taken the spring before Daddy shipped out to Vietnam. The photograph when I was only a toddler and not the startling replica of my mother that I had become. She pushed aside whatever other memories hovered around her and changed the subject.
“By the way, Doc called yesterday. I told him I’d come to work Monday and he said he needed to talk to you about something, too.”
“Are you ready?” I asked automatically and rattled the ice cubes in the glass.
“Monday will be two weeks, Ellie. Things are caught up here and I’m sure Mrs. Simms is tired of working full time again. You want to talk to Doc today?”
I crunched a cube of ice between my molars and tasted tiny pieces of lemon pulp clinging to the frozen lump.
“Uh huh,” I mumbled, my mouth full.
Mama stood and motioned for me to stay seated.
“You rest another few minutes. I’ll make you a sandwich after I wash this dirt off. We should talk about what you’re going to do now. You want more lemonade?”
“No ma’am,” I said to avoid further comment.
She carefully opened the screen door and shooed away a cluster of flies trying to enter the house.
I pulled myself out of the rocker, propped my hip along the white porch rail and waved as a neighbor drove by. The short street was quiet, school still in session and younger children either inside or playing in back yards bounded by hurricane fencing. The dozen houses stretched along both sides were a mix of red brick ranchers and shingle-sided, two-story cottages like ours. Carports rather than garages, front porches complete with rocking chairs and swings. A street on the edge of town; no waterfront property values, but respectably maintained – no cars on blocks or old appliances shoved onto lawns. It was not a transient street. Many of the houses were in the second generation of ownership; a stable group that more often than not didn’t bother to lock doors. Mechanics, waitresses, a cop, and so forth. Mostly Baptist, of course, with some Methodists thrown in and a liberal Presbyterian family on the corner.
It was a great street for kids, a cocoon for anyone who wanted the security of a small town that promised gradual changes when they came at all. It was a town I had left and my plans now were simple. I was going right back to Jacksonville, see if the hospital would re-hire me and find a new apartment. Just pick the pieces up again as if I hadn’t been gone six months.
I loved my family, notwithstanding the usual aggravation of relatives, but I went to college, even if it was no further than Valdosta, for a reason. I enjoyed the Florida Panhandle, close enough when I needed to come home, but adequate distance to be truly independent. I didn’t fault Becky for her choice of early marriage to the well-intentioned, lackluster Neil Pickering whose idea of adventure was a trip to Jekyll Island, but I wanted more excitement than I was likely to find in Denton.
Leroy had called me at Thanksgiving and I reluctantly accepted his judgment that Mama couldn’t handle Daddy alone any longer. I took the sting out of Becky’s smugness that she was too busy with a husband and children when I reminded her that she almost couldn’t fit into her wedding gown because of her oldest child.
Mama told us to hush up and tried to tell me she could get by without help, but it was a futile attempt negated by one conversation with Doc Kiley. The following months as Daddy weakened were not easy, but we managed all right and my caregiver role had ended.
I was ready to return to my chosen town where at least the bars stayed open after eleven p.m. No question about it, my stay in Denton had been long enough. At least, that’s the way it seemed as I went inside to take a quick shower.
Later that afternoon I settled into the comfortable chair beside Doc Kiley’s antique walnut desk. We’d not lingered long on pleasantries.
Doc wrinkled his broad brow and looked at me questioningly with deep-set light green eyes that had seemed like X-ray vision when I was a child. “Do you know anything about Richard Mitchell?”
I went blank for a moment, then opened my eyes wide when the name connected. “The actor guy? The one at the old Herrington place?”
He nodded. “That’s him.”
I shrugged and tugged my earlobe. “Not really. I mean, I kind of know the story, but I wasn’t here when he moved in and you know Mama’s not much for gossip. I was barely a teenager when it all happened, so I wasn’t terribly interested. If I remember correctly, he never went to trial, but the girl’s death was never solved or something like that. To be honest, I have no idea why or how he came to Denton.”
Doc took a moment to minister to his pipe. It was an old pipe, used more as a prop of the village doctor than as an actual instrument for smoking.
“The last part first. Richard chose Denton because it’s a backwater place where he can have privacy. He more or less stumbled across us when he was cruising the Intercoastal after they finished shooting one of his films in Savannah. Just one of those friendly little towns that stuck in his mind and when he was looking for seclusion, he remembered Denton. At first, no one really knew who he was, but it didn’t stay quiet too long. As you pointed out, it’s been a long time and it wasn’t a local affair, so the hubbub didn’t last too long. Kind of a lark for the town to have someone notorious even if he’s not a celebrity any more.”
“I guess I don’t quite know where you’re headed with this, Doc,” I said as a reminder there was supposed to be a point to the conversation.
“Ah, yes. Well, you see, Richard was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis while he was traveling in Australia.”
I sat up a little straighter. Lou Gehrig's disease? That was exotic for this region.
“He came to see me right after he arrived. It’s been interesting, of course, enough to sometimes make me forget it’s terminal.” Doc tapped the pipe against his teeth.
Oh right, that part.
“Anyway, what I’m getting at is, the next stages are manifesting and it will be more difficult for him, although the timeline is unpredictable. It could be a matter of weeks, or months. What time he has left, he’s going to need dedicated attention. He’ll lose a lot of strength for extended periods and suffer intermittent paralysis in different parts of his body. After massive deterioration sets in, the end normally comes quickly.”
I was puzzled and didn’t try to hide it. “Why does he want to stay here instead of going to one of the long-term care facilities? Atlanta’s not that far if he wants to stay in Georgia and with all the research, he might luck into a new treatment.”
Doc didn’t respond immediately. It was as if he was playing verbal exchanges back and forth in his mind.
“That was my advice to him,” Doc said with a nod. “I can’t explain it very well, but fundamentally, Richard has opted not to fight what’s usually a losing battle. He doesn’t want to be inside a treatment facility being poked and prodded. On the other hand, there are some genuine problems if he tries to stay alone. He’s agreed that if he can find the right person, he’ll hire a live-in. I can treat the symptoms for the time-being.”
I was startled when I realized what Doc was saying. “And you thought of me? Why?”
Doc came around to sit on the corner of his desk and I thought about how he never seemed to change. His dark hair was peppered with white just as it was the first time he poked a tongue depressor into my mouth.
“Look Ellie, I delivered you into this world and I’ve watched you grow up. Your mother is a good woman and you’re a lot more like her than your sister will ever be. Not that there’s anything wrong with Becky, mind you, but you’ve got your mother’s share of common sense and you’re a hell of a good nurse. Even though you’re young, I can’t think of anyone who would be better suited for Richard.”
I knew Doc wasn’t trying to manipulate me and I enjoyed his praise. I couldn’t count the afternoons I’d hung around his office while Mama did everything not related to medical care. Neither he nor the regular nurses acted as if I was a nuisance and their willingness to answer my constant questions were key to my career selection.
“Well Doc, I was figuring on going back to Jacksonville. I mean, everything’s taken care of at the house and Mama said she’s starting work again Monday. I left the hospital on good terms and even though they didn’t exactly promise me a new job, I don’t expect any problems. Staying here wasn’t in my plans.”
He blinked his green eyes and adjusted round, gold horn-rimmed glasses. “I know it sounds a little out of the ordinary. The truth of the matter is I would prefer someone local and you’re the first one I thought of. Jacksonville isn’t going to disappear any time soon, but I understand if you’ve had your fill of personal care for a while. It won’t be easy later and you’re not professionally trained in hospice-type work.”
I stretched my legs and began to focus on the intriguing idea. How much different could it be from what I’d just experienced?
“I presume from the way you’re talking, you don’t think Mr. Mitchell is a man who got away with murder.”
Doc smiled and shook his head. “Look, I’m not going to kid you. There’s no question that Richard Mitchell made some serious mistakes in his life. And I could be wrong about him, but I don’t believe he’s a man who committed any kind of crime and he’s in a terminal state. If I’m wrong about him, then he’ll soon be facing his own judgment day where that can be sorted out.”
I ran my hand through my feathered hair. “Do you need a decision right this minute? I mean, I’d like to think about it and I really should talk to Mama.”
“Yes, of course you should. I didn’t expect you to give me an answer today, although if you decide not to take the job, I’ll have to find someone else. Now, a different subject. How are y’all doing?”
I shrugged. One of the best things about Doc was there was no reason to hide the truth from him. He tried his best to get Daddy to go into the Veteran’s Hospital where they were used to treating men who hadn’t been able to cope with whatever had happened in the jungles of Vietnam.
“Well, you know, it’s a relief in a way. I mean, even when you’re prepared, it’s still kind of a shock when it finally happens, but it’s better in one sense.”
Doc reached out and ruffled my hair as if I was a little girl again.
“Ellie, it’s been tough on all of you for a lot of years. Your daddy wasn’t a bad man. Something just went wrong and he dealt with it the best way he could. I can’t say I’m not ready for your mama to come back if she’s up to it. I’ve missed her and Martha Simms likes being retired.”
I laughed. When I came in Miss Martha had told me how her vegetable garden surely needed extra attention.
“Okay Doc, I’ll let you know what I decide tomorrow.”
Mama’s reaction was predictable. If Doc trusted Mr. Mitchell, she had no cause to believe otherwise and she wasn’t concerned with what people would say. The idle gossipers didn’t mean any harm and the mean ones weren’t likely to change their ways. She agreed that neither Leroy nor Becky would understand, but their opinions weren’t important to me. We decided it wouldn’t hurt for me to at least talk to Richard Mitchell.
“I appreciate you coming by,” the former film star said the next day when I made the quick trip to the old Herrington place. “And I’m sorry for your loss. Doctor Kiley speaks quite highly of you, but I understand you were planning to return to Florida.”
I nodded, having successfully coped with the sight of Mr. Mitchell’s shaved head and waxen complexion. His voice was strong with movie tones still evident and I could feel the draw of those remarkable blue eyes.
“Thank you, but my father had been ill for some time. While I have neither an obligation to, nor a commitment from, my previous employer I did intend to go back next week.”
We were outside in the white wooden gazebo that overlooked the Intercostal Waterway, the navigable canal that runs the length of the eastern United States. The water was empty since the early morning boats had already passed and the summer traffic was not yet underway. Cottony clouds momentarily obscured the sun without diminishing the heat and the perpetual canal breeze was pleasantly cool.
“Yes, of course. There’s no reason to beat around the bush, Miss Daniels. I’m dying, but Lou Gehrig’s is unpredictable. I don’t know how long I’ll need your services, nor can I accurately estimate when your tasks will increase. I hope to remain fully functional as long as possible and would prefer the bed-ridden state that Doctor Kiley anticipates to be brief.”
I felt I should point out the obvious solution. “Mr. Mitchell, I’m certain you know there are medical facilities which could provide far better care than anyone here.”
His smiled and it wasn’t difficult to understand his past box office popularity.
“Miss Daniels, please call me Richard, and as I’m sure Doctor Kiley told you, he strongly urged me to do that, but I have my reasons to decline. I’ve agreed to allow my records to be shared with the Baylor Medical Center in Houston for any research they wish to do. An old friend of mine teaches there and I’ve also drawn up the required documentation to release my body to them after I die.”
It was his complete lack of self-pity that penetrated my reluctance. Or perhaps I was too close to the time of my father and felt that I could have done more to ease his passing. Or perhaps it was an element of destiny that brought the two of us together. I suppose I will never know the answer.
“Well,” I said. “Maybe you could tell me about your expectations of what my duties would be.”
How easily that sentence came and how unaware I was of what would follow.
Once I accepted Richard’s offer, my immediate job was to organize our schedule and integrate our lifestyles. The physical arrangement of the house was advantageous; a two story Victorian with the signature wrap-around verandah. Richard had wisely decided against the upstairs master bedroom and instead taken the downstairs rooms. His large bedroom and the library were connected by a bath. I enjoyed the upper floor in apartment-like privacy with triple windows that provided a view of the huge magnolia tree, the water visible through dark green leaves and creamy blossoms.
The house itself had been a subject of delicious story-swapping when I was a senior in high school. Lurlene, the oldest Herrington daughter, not blessed with classic beauty, had dutifully remained by their cranky mother’s side until her death well past the time when Lurlene was considered marriageable material. Charlene, the younger daughter, with enviable raven hair and emerald eyes, had been the favored child in and out of the house. Old Widow Herrington, when she finally passed away was considerate and left the house to Lurlene, although the rest of the inheritance went to Charlene. In a surprising move, Lurlene took what had become a dowdy structure and supervised an extensive remodel to brighten it, but with careful design and execution to mask updated conveniences. Charlene, who allegedly stole the only man that had ever showed a romantic interest in Lurlene, was living in Atlanta and she was vocal in her objections. She swore the renovation was against their dear departed mother’s wishes and she went as far as to try to get an injunction to stop the project.
Folks in town were divided in opinion and after Lurlene prevailed, she compounded the insult by living in the house for barely four years before she married late in life and moved to Texas. She kept the house vacant for a while and then sold it with the stipulation that the only person in the world who wouldn’t be allowed to buy it was her younger sister.
Lurlene had been far more faithful to the sense of the house than Charlene had given her credit for and left it fully furnished, reminiscent of either a museum or a bed and breakfast. Impeccably reproduced antiques carried the deception of an era frozen against coming modernism. When the lights were dimmed at night, it was not difficult to imagine myself in a tiered cotton petticoat covered by a long skirt rustling against my ankles.
If Richard was aware of the history of the house, he never mentioned it. He was polite, although quietly distant for the most part. He would rise early, walk as far as his weakened legs allowed, return for a light breakfast, withdraw to the gazebo, or library if it rained, join me for a simple lunch and nap in the afternoon. The length of the nap was proportional to the degree of exhaustion he felt and the number of painkillers he took.
In the evenings, he would often have enough energy to cook, an act that startled me the first time I watched him move expertly around the well-appointed country kitchen. From the wood-front panels covering the appliances to the limestone farmer’s sink and vintage light fixtures, the kitchen was designed for culinary proficiency as well as aesthetics. I confessed my limited repertoire after our third dinner together and Richard laughingly revealed the chef-inspired side of his character.
“I’d never thought much about cooking,” he said as I’d raised my eyebrows in question. “But the Malibu house I bought came with a big-time gourmet kitchen and personal chefs were the rage in Hollywood. The guy my housekeeper recommended was about my age, was fun to watch and when I didn’t have a lot of people around for a party or something, I’d wander in and he and I would get to talking. It wasn’t too long before he was showing me how to do stuff and I found out I actually enjoyed it.”
I gladly accepted the role of assistant, cleaning and prepping while he displayed his talent in a variety of cuisines that easily outmatched my habitual microwavable frozen entrees. I observed him unobtrusively and enhanced my own skills for the day his strength would falter. The unpredictable dizzy spells where he would momentarily lose his balance and be forced to sit or clutch something stable were manageable, although it was difficult to know when they would intensify.
Thelma Brown came once a week to do the heavy cleaning, a sturdy woman who displayed no reaction at my arrival. She did not engage in non-work related discussions and usually finished within a few hours, her opinions kept to herself.
Richard gave me free access to the library crammed with books, he subscribed to the full range of satellite television channels and my laptop connected me to the Internet world. My external interaction came from Doc Kiley’s visits, trips into town, and twice weekly dinners with Mama or other members of the family if they chose to join us.
Late one night I caught one of Richard’s movies and found his magnetism disconcerting – a virile body that was shirtless for more scenes than logic allowed for. So that’s what he had looked like! The eyes, though, the eyes sustained their allure and in the following days, I became conscious of uncontrolled mental winks when my mind demanded that I substitute the handsome screen presence for the weakened man. The images resisted erasure, although a stern rebuke sent them to the corner of my mind.
I took my cue from Richard and carefully refrained from asking questions about his past. I noted few indications of his previous life in the possessions he kept around him. Mere snippets of information, like the reference to his home, would only briefly turn the conversation to the years he rarely acknowledged.
One day I bought a woman’s magazine that featured the face of Stella Hayes on the cover. It was a lead-in to an article about her latest film, her upcoming birthday, and her recent stay in a rehabilitation clinic. Richard picked the magazine up when I laid it on the kitchen counter.
“She really is gorgeous, even though I guess she thinks she can’t compete with young starlets any longer,” I said as he put the magazine down and shook his head.
“Stella can compete. She’ll sleep with the right men, have the highest quality cocaine at her parties, rebuild that incredible body at expensive spas, and have her publicist put a positive spin on it all.”
I wondered how accurate his assessment was. “Oh yes, I suppose you must have known her. I guess the image can be different from the real person.”
“Actually, there aren’t many real people in Hollywood,” Richard continued. “At least not that are successful. Egos and images are too powerful. That’s probably one of the best lessons I learned while I was married to Stella.”
“You were married to her?” I repeated despite having heard him.
He tried not to look amused at my astonishment. “Twenty-two months and not a day of boredom in them.”
I hesitated to ask more, but this was the first time he seemed willingly to talk about Hollywood. “Was it worth the excitement?”
Richard paused and I assumed he would decline to answer. He began to help me put groceries away instead with the almost slow motion movements he’d become accustomed to.
“Well, it was worth as much as the rest of the glitter scene. I met Stella at a party and she was spectacular that night. They had wrapped another of her erotic thriller movies and I was in the last stages of filming Critical Timing. The chemistry between us was explosive and we looked good together – very photogenic.”
Oh yes, two golden people. I folded an empty grocery sack. “Were you in love?”
Richard shrugged. “I suppose so – for a while, at least. It’s difficult to sort through that level of excitement. I never really got used to the lifestyle and didn’t understand how I came to be living in a mansion getting millions of dollars to be in movies. Being married to Stella Hayes was another piece of the package.”
I watched him as he carefully stacked one can on top of another. “And it wasn’t so great when you unwrapped it?” Sure, why would one be happy with making millions of dollars and being married to a gorgeous woman?
“That’s a lot of what Hollywood is about, Ellie. Fantasy, image, short duration excitement. Beautiful people in glamorous luxury. After the initial rush between us, Stella discovered I didn’t know how, or particularly want to learn, to work Hollywood. Hell, I knew I was more lucky than talented and for guys like me, the big offers weren’t going to last. I didn’t have the talent for going behind the camera and I couldn’t imagine wanting to hang around as a has-been chasing new chances. She’s the one who had the power people around, knew what she wanted and made it happen. She was, to put it mildly, more ruthless than I expected. That, the drugs, and her practically open promiscuity got old real fast.”
I listened carefully, trying to judge his tone. He spoke almost objectively, more detached than personal.
“Since she was the one who decided others could offer her more, we parted on fairly good terms and later, when everything went downhill, she had the satisfaction of having plenty of distance between us.”
He closed the cabinet and shrugged again.
“Anyway, that’s a lot of water under the bridge. Why don’t you plan to visit your mother tonight? I think I’ll have a bowl of soup for dinner and go to bed early.”
The conversation was obviously over and I finally had to admit to myself that this glimpse stirred my curiosity to the point of an unbearable itch. I wanted to know about the public Richard Mitchell.
I waited until my next venture into town and spent an extra couple of hours in the library, feeling marginally guilty that my interest would be passed along the grapevine. My concern gave way to fascination as I read the media’s interpretation of the extraordinary rise and fall of Richard’s stardom. I already knew he was born and raised in the tiny North Georgia town of Coosa and joined the Navy immediately after high school.
The actual beginning of his career was unclear, for he apparently did not arrive in Los Angeles as an aspiring actor, but was somehow engaged as an extra in a movie.
For whatever reason, he attracted the attention of the director who then cast him in what was to be a small part in his next project. One of Hollywood’s biggest agents accurately predicted the audience’s reaction to Richard, signed him on and quickly negotiated a co-starring role in what became one of the biggest money making films of that year.
Richard’s Cinderella story continued for ten years and he was named among the country’s most eligible bachelors with Hollywood confident that his marriage to Stella Hayes would burn out within a year, if not sooner.
The scandal was kindled when a young woman who worked in a beauty salon filed charges against him. Her name was Ashley Wellby. She claimed she attended a party at Richard’s house and that he asked her to return after the other guests departed. She did so and he drugged and raped her, but because she waited several days to go to the police physical evidence was non-existent and Richard swore he’d never met her.
During the investigation, however, Miss Wellby revealed a number of details that supported her story and other people recalled seeing her even though they did not remember her being with Richard. He was subsequently arrested and the publicity frenzy ignited.
Preparation for the trial took several months as public and legal opinion argued the possible outcome. Miss Wellby was found shot to death in her home two days before the trial was to begin. When a witness placed Richard Mitchell at the scene, it seemed to be a proverbial cut and dried matter.
Complications arose with discrepancies of timing and undisclosed forensics aspects and the case was inexplicably dropped. Miss Wellby’s death was officially ruled as suspicious, but the district attorney announced that Richard was no longer a suspect.
Richard Mitchell declared his innocence in the one press conference he held and then refused to discuss the situation or grant interviews. It was hard to tell if Richard divested himself of Hollywood or vice-versa, but he left to travel and later sold his mansion. There were a few attempts to locate him, but the attempts disappeared just as he did. The ripple in the pond faded and his movies were relegated to cable and video stores.
I was better informed although no more knowledgeable than before. The Richard Mitchell I helped care for, the man Doc Kiley cared about, was not the man depicted in the stories I read and I almost regretted my decision to probe. I knew I could not ask him. I could only hope he would share other moments with me; moments I could absorb until I could piece together a less puzzling portrait.
The heated summer days when humidity joined hands with high temperatures forced Richard to remain inside air-conditioned rooms and he reversed his sleep pattern. We would share dinner most nights, then he would slip out to the gazebo in a bubble of solitude that was not unfriendly, yet I felt that my presence would be an intrusion. He took his walks in the dawning hours, agreeing only to the emergency beeper that I set as a condition. I slept lightly during those nights, not in a deprived state, merely able to quickly waken if needed. The summer slipped past us and I learned nothing new about my employer.
“You know I’m not one for interfering,” Mama said one October evening as we sat in our favorite spot on the porch.
We wore sweaters in deference to the breeze as the smell of burning leaves drifted from another street in the neighborhood.
“Your sister is close to having a hissy fit about your Mr. Mitchell. She thinks he should either have the decency to go on and die or you should quit.”
I leaned my head against the back of the chair. “I know. She told me the same thing last week. I told her to mind her own damn business.”
“There’s no cause for foul language,” Mama said in reflex. “I’m not saying she’s right, but it has been six months and you hadn’t planned to stay on here. Not that I would mind if you did. I kind of enjoy having all of you together.”
I turned to look at her, this woman I admired. She had accepted the inexorable decline of her husband; borne for two decades the weight of wife to an emotional cripple, mother to children who could not grasp the reason why. She stood firm when fate stripped away what her life should have been and had not permitted rancor or bitterness to take root. She stroked our cheeks when we could not comprehend the rebuff of our own father and defused our child-cruel words at him with quiet reminders that wounds of the soul were not outwardly visible. It took me longer than I cared to admit to define her character for what it was. My initial resentment of uprooting to come home had piled on top of past hurts from my youth. It was during the final weeks when I helped care for Daddy that the depths of my mother’s sacrifice crystallized; the years of lost laughter and marital companionship. She had let go of dreams, embraced reality and never shrieked heavenward against the unfairness. In rare moments of coherence, I’d seen unspoken love for her spark in my father’s eyes. Even now, I can’t pinpoint the moment when my anger dissolved into understanding. I suspect Mama could tell me if I could ever find the courage to ask her the direct question.
Unlike Becky, I did not view my feelings as accessories to be matched to my daily attire. As Doc Kiley expected, I’d been circumspect in my dealings with Richard, but I wanted to talk to someone. I knew I could trust Mama to keep my confidence. Or was it Richard’s confidence?
“You know, Mama, it’s been quite an experience.”
“I would imagine so. He’s hardly like anyone else we have in these parts.”
I stopped rocking and twisted my chair to face her, although I couldn’t see the expression in her eyes in the yellow porch light.
“You know what’s funny? He really is like us, in a way. I mean, he’s from Coosa, his daddy is a preacher and his mama is the church pianist. He was raised small town, strict Primitive Baptist upbringing. He went off and joined the Navy so he could see the ocean and then wound up in Hollywood by accident. He was thinking about re-enlisting in the Navy and went to Los Angeles to visit his buddy who was trying to become an actor. He convinced Richard to come with him to work as an extra on this movie. He agreed because he didn’t have anything better to do, and then, well, his discovery just sort of happened.”
I wondered briefly how I must sound and began to pluck at a piece of cane that was working its way loose from the side of the chair. This was my mother. She, of all people, would know what I meant.
“He was as surprised as anyone when he became a success. He studied hard though, and learned about clothes, wine, food and music. He told me he never felt like he belonged in Hollywood, but once people think you’re on the way up, they fall all over themselves to do things for you. It’s incredible the places he’s been. Oh he doesn’t carry on in a bragging way. It’s just that he’ll say something about sailing in the Caribbean or shooting a movie in Hong Kong.”
Mama rocked slowly and didn’t interrupt.
I stopped playing with the chair, tucked my heels against the lower rung and clasped my hands around my knees. “And it’s not like we talk all the time, just sometimes when we’re having dinner or he’s sitting out by the water, he’ll tell me little bits and pieces. He said that when he made his first million dollars, I mean, think about that, when he made his first million, he sent a big check home to his parents.”
I paused again and remembered how Richard tried to mask his sadness when he spoke of their rejection.
“They sent the money back. Said it was tainted Devil’s wages, filthy lucre dredged from a wicked place. They would forgive his waywardness if he was willing to turn away from the immoral heathens of Hollywood. His own parents. Can you imagine?”
Mama didn’t voice the reproof I thought they deserved. “Well Ellie, it’s hard to move someone off strong convictions. Doesn’t mean their attitude is correct and I suppose it hasn’t gotten much better for him.”
I shook my head. “We don’t talk about that. Richard mentioned one time that part of why he decided on Denton was because he thought his parents might be willing to come down if he was in the same state. That hasn’t happened so far.” I sucked my breath in. “And I’m not sure they have much more time. Doc figures maybe another few months, if that long.”
The rhythm of Mama’s chair was sedate and her voice steady.
“Ellie honey, like I said before, it’s not my manner to interfere and I agreed in the beginning you should take this job. I feel sorry for Mr. Mitchell, and I don’t think your sister’s worries come from compassion, but she could be right this time. Helping me with your daddy was a strain even though you acted as if it wasn’t. Maybe taking on something so similar so soon after is too much. After all, your training is to help people get well, not watch while they die.”
I forced back uncharacteristic tears and struggled not to choke up. Leave Richard at this point? Ask him to trust someone new?
“Oh Mama, I know you’re partly right, but I’m okay. I don’t think I could turn away from Richard. He’s a very private person and bringing a stranger in could be too difficult for him. I don’t mean to sound down, I just thought I could talk to you. I thought you’d understand.”
Mama stopped rocking and I saw her mouth curve into a wistful smile.
“It is all right to talk to me and I can’t say I’m surprised at how you feel, but I wouldn’t be doing right by you if I didn’t tell you I have some concern. Is it sympathy or are you maybe having other feelings, too?”
There it was – out in the open – the very words I’d been struggling against saying, against thinking. Mama asked about feelings without saying love, yet that must be what she meant. It would do me no good to continue my denial even though the phrase clanged discordantly. Was I falling in love with him? That couldn’t be; he was my patient, a dying man. Not an ordinary man, though; a man who had once enjoyed incredible fame and fortune. A man who had perhaps violated and murdered a young woman. No he had not. It simply wasn’t possible.
How did these questions and answers race around so quickly in my head? Hardly a breath had passed when I sighed.
“I honestly don’t know, Mama. I’ve never in my life been in a situation like this. He hasn’t made any kind of improper remark or suggestion and the periods of paralysis come closer together now and last longer. I guess, though, there are moments when I see him out in the gazebo, or when we’re having dinner, that well, I do wonder what it would have been like to have known him when he was this big actor living in his mansion. I think it would be more strange if I didn’t wonder, wouldn’t it?”
A burst of wind swung the pewter seashell chimes hanging by the door. Mama waited until the noise subsided.
“Ellie, of course it’s normal for you to have thoughts like that every now and then. Honey, you’re only twenty-five, and you haven’t had a real chance to get set and meet anyone special. I kind of figured you’d find a young man while you were in school, but you were too busy with your studies. And while I don’t know anything about Mr. Mitchell, I would reckon he can be charming. The combination of that and you being one of the only people he depends on is pretty powerful. If it’s getting too hard for you then maybe it’s time to re-think things.”
I loudly exhaled a long breath. “It’s not that bad, Mama. I admit I’m in a bit of a muddle, but not to the point I can’t do my job.” Had she not understood after all?
Mama’s voice reflected the gentle strength I envied.
“Child, don’t go putting words into my mouth. You’ve always been the smart one in the family and you’ve got plenty of common sense to boot, so I don’t fret much over you. I can tell you though, sometimes our hearts get in the way of being smart and having common sense. It’s the normal way of people.”
I leaned forward to search her eyes and she reached out to lightly pat my hand. There was no judgment in her posture or tone, merely the experience of a woman who had lived through two decades of anguish, a woman who understood me better than anyone else. No matter what I decided, I could tell her and expect her full support. Even though I didn’t consider myself anywhere near her equal, I was of her blood and took comfort in that.
Satisfied with what I saw, I pushed out of the rocker and held my arms for a good-bye embrace. “Thanks, Mama. I need to go, but I appreciate you listening and I’ll figure it all out pretty soon.”
She smiled and hugged me a little tighter than usual in parting. I leaned into the protection of our closeness.
I thought about our conversation as I drove to Richard’s and felt the relief of having verbalized my confusion without sounding like some hand-wringing, airhead. Mama was right, my emotions were normal.
The truth was, Richard was different from any other man I knew and my sympathy for him had grown into affection, but I was too practical a person to fall in love with him. I tended to take care of sexual urges myself and while there was a cute physician’s assistant in Jacksonville I had flirted with, I had no idea if he was still unattached. The only man in Denton that I had seriously dated during high school was into his second marriage and wasn’t nearly as attractive as he had been at seventeen. If I truly required fleeting male companionship and didn’t mind unpolished approaches, I could saunter into the Main Street Bar or the lounge at the Holiday Inn. Those were options I’d left by the wayside when I departed for college and nothing new had occurred to change my perspective.
I wasn’t lonely in spite of knowing that a number of women in town had already labeled me in an unkindly way. I had time to find the right man and I clearly recognized that man could not be Richard Mitchell.
No, my conflict was less romantic and more because I wanted to know Richard better. I wanted him to understand that despite alienation from his family and exclusion from luxury, he was not alone. It was difficult enough to admit his death was imminent and it seemed I could at least provide some comfort if he wished to open himself to me.
Yet he had come to Denton for privacy and it was not my place to stir memories he preferred to keep hidden. It was up to him to determine what he would reveal and what he would obscure.
When I entered the house I paused at Richard’s doorway to see only pale illumination of the nightlight and heard no sound. Despite cooler weather, his sleep had become more erratic and the afternoon naps sometimes came at mid-morning as well. He often went to bed immediately following dinner to awaken around midnight until nearly dawn. Time in clock hours had little meaning for him now and I did not know how he viewed time in the number of days, weeks or months remaining.
Richard and I did not talk about his personal feelings as he struggled with his devastated body, his left side becoming virtually immobile. Then he briefly strengthened in early December. A thin sheen of frost covered the grass in the mornings and tall pines and hearty shrubs stood green in contrast to the trees that had given up their leaves. I had vague memories of infrequent snowfalls and two years prior a hard freeze had blasted in to coat the region in thick ice. This winter, however, was upholding the Farmer’s Almanac promise of a mild one with bright sunny days where a sweater was the only outer clothing required. Stretches of wispy clouds broke the solidity of hard blue sky and when cold rain fell, it waited until night.
We were in the white wooden gazebo one afternoon; Richard nearly exhausted from the short walk. I fussed about him with throw pillows and a lap blanket he protested against, but he quieted his objections when I handed him a hot toddy, heavier on the bourbon than my mother’s recipe called for.
“I’m glad Doctor Kiley hasn’t restricted the booze. That really would make dying painful,” he said after the first sip.
“Well, the honey and lemon have medicinal value. You’ll be safe from scurvy,” I said trying to mirror his attitude. It was one of the things I found remarkable about him.
A sailboat moved slowly into view and Richard admired the craft as it passed by on the way south.
“Look at that beauty, would you? It’s a little small, but a hell of a nice boat,” he said longingly. “The ocean is one of the things I miss the most. I mean, I enjoyed rock climbing and skiing, but out on a boat, cruising the Caribbean or the California coast were some of my favorite times.”
I hoped no response was necessary.
He smiled at me. “You know, it isn’t that I miss the kind of money I used to have. Hell, I experienced more luxury and adventure than most people ever dream of. I do wish, however, I still had the ability to do a few things. Years ago I could have flown you first class to Paris and put you up in the Ritz like you deserve. I’m sorry I can’t make that happen.”
I was staring at the tiny dot of the boat as it moved out of sight so his words didn’t register for a moment. When I realized what he had said I focused on his face, waiting for a punch line of some kind.
“What?” I wasn’t sure what he meant.
His blue eyes reflected amusement.
“Ellie, you are, without a doubt, one of the most sensible, giving, wonderful women I have ever met. You’ve made this process easier, and in spite of being practically trapped with a dying man in a town you had outgrown, I’ve not heard a single complaint from you. You should be out in the world meeting some terrific guy who will take you up on the Eiffel tower and show you Paris at sunset.”
“I, uh, I don’t know..., I’m not sure...” I stumbled through words that had nothing to do with what I wanted to say.
Richard held up his right hand, the tremors unmistakable.
“Ellie, you don’t have to say anything. There are people who affect our lives in positive ways and we usually forget to tell them so. Under other circumstances I could leave you a disgustingly large sum of money to indicate my appreciation, but unfortunately, I won’t be able do that. The best I can do is to tell you what a blessing you’ve been to me. Now, now, those aren’t tears, are they?”
I shook my head rapidly and couldn’t catch the two unstoppable drops that slanted across my cheeks.
He tilted his head with an apparent effort. “Ellie, you aren’t going to fall apart on me are you?”
I breathed in deeply to regain my composure.
“No Richard, I’m not. You just took me by surprise. And while I admit the days kind of run together sometimes, I don’t consider this a hardship. I don’t regret having stayed here and even though I won’t pretend I wouldn’t love to see Paris, I feel as if I’ve been there after listening to you talk about it.”
I clutched the rail of the gazebo to steady my hands and fought the urge to sit beside him and cradle his head to my breasts.
The unexpected blast of a barge’s horn from the waterway startled us and the mood, which may, or may not have been building, dissipated at the jarring sound.
The moment, if there had been one, was gone and Richard changed the subject.
“I’m afraid my cooking days may be limited and I know don’t have the energy for it tonight. How about I talk you through chicken piccata, fettuccine with pesto and parmesan-topped broiled tomatoes? It’s a pretty simple meal.”
I laughed in agreement. “Not compared to macaroni and cheese with chopped up hot dogs. See, that’s something you’ve done for me. My use of spices has expanded beyond salt and pepper and I know how to shop for extra virgin olive oil. I don’t know when I would have learned that on my own.”
He signaled me to help him stand.
“It’s nice that I’ve done some good. After all, men are still impressed by a woman who knows her way around the kitchen. When you find the terrific man who’s going to take you to Paris that will be one more thing he can like about you.”
“If he’s terrific, he’ll be able to fix his own chicken piccata,” I said as we made slow progress toward the house. Just like you can, is what I didn’t say, unaware that languid afternoon was to mark the last of our peaceful days.
A few nights later I decided to make a cup of tea after watching a movie. The house was quiet, but I paused to glance at Richard’s room as I always did. The library door was fully open and the brass floor lamp on.
It was a room I’d grown to appreciate with floor to ceiling bookcases on three walls and an authentic rolling library ladder. Four stuffed chairs, two in a pattern overly floral for my taste, and two in coordinated solid blue, were paired with small side tables and a low round table at the center of the grouping. Two upholstered ottomans provided relief for readers who liked to stretch their legs and the remaining two chairs were for the curl-up-and-read type, like me. A perfectly proportioned maple secretary with an ample writing surface, single middle drawer and open pigeonholes sat beneath the sill of the only window. One of my few messy duties was to care for the painstakingly restored fireplace, but it was a pittance to pay for admission into a space that folded you into coziness. Two logs were crisscrossed above a scatter of glowing chunks. Flames lapped around the wood with the occasional orange-yellow tongue darting up.
Richard looked up from the book that rested on his thin thighs. “Ah Ellie, did you get a craving for a midnight snack?”
“A cup of tea, actually,” I said from the doorway. “Would you like some?”
He twisted his mouth downward. “Could I convince you to do coffee instead?”
“Sure, I’m easy. Did you want anything to snack on?” He had eaten almost nothing at dinner.
He shook his head in the restricted range of motion he had left.
“No thanks, I’m not hungry.”
I paused long enough to poke the burning logs and lay a fresh one atop. Richard smiled his thanks. When I returned, trundling a maple wooden rolling cart, I moved an extra pillow behind his back to allow him to sit further forward in the chair. I took the leather bound volume he’d been reading and laid it next to the white diner style coffee mug. I’d arranged slices of banana nut bread and miniature apple spice muffins on a dessert plate to tempt him.
“Seven at Thebes? Homer?”
“Aeschylus,” he corrected. “Ancient literature, just the same.”
I preferred twentieth century authors. I read the required classics in school and hadn’t been able to properly appreciate Shakespeare. Not that I knew anyone except my English teacher who did. I settled into an ottoman-less chair across from him.
“I still don’t understand how someone raised in Coosa started reading Greek classics.” I blew a stream of air into my coffee.
Richard bent forward and shakily brought the mug to his lips. The pastries had barely warranted a glance. After he succeeded in his task, he looked at me. “You have a lot of spare time when you’re on sea duty and one of the guys I worked with was the kind who read nearly anything put into print. My parents had censored most every book other than the Bible and I ragged on him about cluttering up his mind. He finally gave me a copy of Catcher in the Rye and bet me ten bucks I couldn’t make it all the way through. It was a transparent move, but hell, ten bucks meant something to me in those days and then he recommended other titles. I wasn’t in his league, but by the time I finished three years in the Navy, I’d added a lot to my high school education. I took a couple of college courses and was thinking about maybe going back to school when the acting piece fell into my lap.”
He stopped for a moment to sip his coffee and tapped the book. “God knows I didn’t read anything other than scripts while I was in Hollywood, so when I found myself alone, it seemed the right time to start again. I like contemporary literature, but there’s something fascinating about men writing thousands of years ago about the same kind of emotions and situations we face today. Oh granted, we don’t make literal human sacrifices to the gods, but greed, lust, struggle for power, betrayal – none of that has changed much. The Greeks certainly understood the concept of tragic flaw.”
I watched him carefully. His voice was reflective and his face solemn. This seemed to be more than casual observation.
“I’m not sure I follow you,” I said quietly and plucked at a stray thread on the wrist of the old pair of navy blue sweats I was wearing.
I refilled his mug as he made a tiny circle with his finger on the brown leather cover of the book. “The key to all Greek tragedies is that the central figure must possess a fatal flaw, something which ultimately destroys him or her, even though he or she has admirable, even heroic traits. I mean, we see it all the time and have throughout history, but these guys first defined it, set it onto paper. And yet, despite reading and studying it for centuries, we repeat the same mistakes. Self-confidence made into arrogance, the desire to excel turned into blind ambition, courage becoming recklessness and so forth. You’d think we would have learned by now.”
I didn’t know what to say and wondered how Mama would have answered.
“It’s pretty complicated,” I ventured. “I guess mostly we don’t think something that happened hundred of years ago applies to us.”
Richard tried to smile and failed, the look on his face like none I’d seen before.
“Ellie, I would imagine you have at least some questions about the Wellby case and you’ve never asked, never made a comment.”
I hesitated at the sudden shift to what I thought was a forbidden subject.
“The truth is, her death was my fault.”
I hoped I hadn’t heard what I thought I did. I coughed and felt my throat constrict. “You mean you killed her?” I tried not to squeak.
He sighed. “I don’t mean I pulled the trigger, but she might be alive today if it weren’t for me.”
“Richard, I don’t understand,” I said, relieved at his statement. “Look, when I first came here it was because Doc said point blank he didn’t believe you were guilty. I’m not going to say I haven’t been asked by people, nor that I haven’t been confused by things I read or heard, but knowing the answer wasn’t a condition of my employment.”
“Ellie, I do appreciate that, but I’ve kept quiet for a long time and I’d like to tell someone what happened; someone other than my lawyer, I mean. I’d like it to be you, if you’re willing to listen.”
I nodded, afraid to speak. What was I going to hear? Was I strong enough to withstand his story if it shredded the innocence I awarded him? Hadn’t I created this scene innumerable times? I clasped my other hand around the mug and focused on the warmth radiating into my palm. I could not deny him the chance to explain.
“It’s complicated because the incredibly stupid thing I did stems from my earliest days in Hollywood,” Richard said and looked at me directly with the blue eyes that couldn’t possibly be lying.
“You already know my career was a great rags-to-riches story, but what most people don’t know is that was a complete accident of timing. I told you I was visiting a friend who was a struggling actor, juggling a job and trying to line up auditions. He was an extra on Mafia Justice. They needed another dozen men and he managed to get me in. The pay was good and my God, the women were gorgeous. I can’t even tell you what I was doing when the director saw me. I noticed he was talking to someone and the next thing I knew a frazzled assistant rushed up, and the rest is the stuff of another unknown making it big.”
I watched Richard for signs of tiring, but it was if he was gathering strength from a special source – perhaps some energy stored from years of silence.
“In fact I thought it was some kind of joke at first, a prank my friend cooked up. Then I figured, okay, I can hang around to do the small part they offered in the new movie. I’d already decided I wasn’t going to re-enlist, LA was exciting, and I had enough money to last a while before I needed to get a real job. Then when they re-wrote the part I was playing and the director brought in a dialogue coach for me, I began to wonder what was going on. Suddenly Gordon Gillespie, the biggest agent in Hollywood, invites me to lunch and tells me he can change my life forever. Who am I to say no?”
I flexed my foot. “Is that why you said you never felt like you fit in?”
“That’s one of the reasons. I didn’t pay any dues, didn’t go through constant rejections. Of course, I didn’t do the casting couch routine either, so maybe that was a trade-off. But to get to the point, I never understood how to behave in Hollywood. The perks and attention that come when you’re on the way up or on top are mind-boggling. Not to mention the kind of money you only dream of, the conspicuous consumption factor of Hollywood. Probably one of the best things Gillespie did for me was sign me on with an accounting firm who made sure the taxes were paid and put me on an allowance. You’d be surprised how quickly you can go through a million dollars in that environment.”
How casually he talked of millions.
I shook my head at his comment. “It is hard to imagine.”
A half-smile of chagrin crossed his face. “Anyway, I let Gillespie take care of all the planning and I just went with the flow; the deals, the clubs, the parties. I told you that I tried to help my parents, but I suppose I should have expected them to react the way they did. After they labeled me, the town and the industry as doings of the Devil, I figured what the hell, I might as well take advantage of it while it lasted. And women, God Almighty, the women were straight from centerfolds. They were sculpted, sexy, and plentiful. The offers didn’t stop even when I married Stella. Not, as it turned out, that she considered monogamy to be important to marriage.”
I was beginning to form the picture he described, but couldn’t tell if he considered himself to be fortunate or exploited.
He correctly perceived my confusion.
“I told you it was a complicated story. You see, a great deal of what eventually happened was directly related to the fact that I had no plan, no direction. I wasn’t paying attention to what was around me. It was easy for me to be blindsided.”
I freed the dangling thread and rolled it into a ball between my thumb and forefinger. “With Miss Wellby, you mean?”
He sighed again – a sound of regret rather than fatigue. “It was several months after the divorce. I’d thrown a series of parties that were pretty chaotic affairs with a hundred or more people in the house at a time. When the police first questioned me, I couldn’t even remember what night they were asking about.”
I flicked the ball of thread onto the carpet. “You suffered black-out spells from drinking?”
“Not exactly, but one night was a lot like another with crowds, music, folks you invite, others that show up. It’s kind of hard to fix details. Between the booze and going until dawn or later, it’s easy to lose track.”
“Not that I believe you would force or drug a woman, but the part about you asking her to come back later. Could you have done that and then, you know, been alone with her and forgotten it?” I asked carefully.
Richard’s voice didn’t waver. “I could have, I’d certainly done that before – waked up with a naked woman in bed and no idea of her name. I tried and I couldn’t remember this girl; couldn’t remember having spoken with her or seen her. And even if I’d been so drunk I forgot her, I’m simply not capable of that kind of behavior with women. I mean, I had my share of one-night stands, but to force a woman would have been completely beyond anything I’ve ever done. Even when I was with Stella, it was never as if I couldn’t do without her. I mean, if somehow a woman had that strong an effect on me, surely I would have remembered something about her. None of it made sense. My lawyer suspected it was a typical extortion or publicity seeking racket until she started providing some intimate details, like describing the brand of condoms I used and where I kept them.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yeah, that was one of the things I couldn’t explain. My lawyer got a little nervous and I agreed to a polygraph, then hypnosis and still no recollection of her. The tabloids were having a field day. I have to admit the girl looked and sounded credible. She had a steady job as a hairdresser, was described as a little star-struck, but nothing out of the ordinary. She was exactly the kind of young woman who might agree to return to a celebrity’s house alone expecting a Cinderella romance instead of a drunken quicky.”
Richard paused and the strain was beginning to show around his mouth.
“Look Richard, I do want to listen, but maybe it would be better to rest for a while and we can continue in the morning,” I suggested.
He pushed the ottoman with his heels and exhaled slowly. “No, I’ll be all right. I need you to help me to the bathroom, though, and if it’s not too much trouble could you pour me a cognac?”
Coffee, confessions and cognac at one a.m. – now that was the title for a movie.
I stayed close to the bathroom door until he emerged and leaned against me for support. I waited until he was settled into the chair again and handed him a crystal snifter of cognac. I was sipping the last cup of coffee.
“Where was I? Oh right, Ashley’s credibility. And my unbelievably stupid act.”
I vaguely noticed that I moved to the edge of my chair.
“The trial was coming up and I suddenly began to question my life, myself, how I’d gotten into this. The lawyer tried to buy Ashley off and she turned him down. I got to thinking that maybe if I went to see her personally with no lawyers, no press and told her I really didn’t understand what was going on and offered her money or whatever, she would tell me the truth and we could work out some kind of deal.”
Could he have been that dumb? How could he have thought that would help?
“And that’s why you were on the scene?”
“Yeah, I know, I know, but believe me, it seemed like a good idea at the time. So I called, she agreed to see me and I went over around midnight, like she asked. When I arrived, I was stunned because she acted as if she was happy to see me. She said something like, Oh good, you’ve finally come back.”
I squinted my eyes almost closed. “What?”
Richard would have shrugged if he’d been able to. He stopped for a moment either from weariness or searching for the correct words.
“I could go into a lot of detail, but what it comes down to is, Ashley thought she was in love with me. She’d been a fan for years, said she was so excited when she came to the party and I picked her out. She said it was wonderful when we made love and now she was certain it meant the same to me. It was only because I didn’t telephone her or answer her calls that she became angry and went to the police. She felt used and violated and thought I should be punished.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Wait, you lost me. I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I didn’t catch on myself until later, but I’ll get to that. It didn’t take long for me to decide she was a nut case rather than someone out for money. She really spooked me because I still didn’t know why she thought this had happened, but I promise you, she was sincere.”
I curled my fingers around the arms of the chair. “So what did you do?”
“This woman needed some serious professional help and I knew I’d better get the hell out. I told her I was sorry there had been some kind of misunderstanding, but I would be glad to help her financially and maybe we could meet with the lawyers to get everything sorted out.”
I tightened my grip so much my fingers began to tingle. “And then?”
“She started to undress. She said I didn’t need to go, we could make love like we did before, and we’d take care of everything in the morning. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew staying would be a big mistake. I told her we shouldn’t do anything until we got the situation straightened out.”
He paused again as he recounted the details.
“It was like turning on a light switch. She was half-undressed and suddenly became furious. She started screaming about how I couldn’t treat her this way, that I was a son-of-bitch who thought he could just use women and get rid of them, that she was glad she’d gone to the police and I would finally get what I deserved. She rushed at me. I grabbed her by the arms, told her she was crazy and shoved her back against the couch. She lost her balance and I got out, fast. I’d just made it through the door when I heard glass breaking.”
I stared at him. “So you left her like that?”
“Yeah, but I was pretty shaken up. I stopped in a bar on the way home and drank more than I probably should have. I planned to call my lawyer the next morning to tell him, but before I had a chance, the cops showed up and hauled me down for questioning.”
“Didn’t you explain?” I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. What an idiot he’d been.
“Look, by that stage I didn’t know which end was up. The lawyer told me to keep my mouth shut until he knew what they had in the way of evidence. He was pissed that I’d gone to see her and he didn’t want any details. It was touchy for a few days, but the time of death couldn’t match the time the bartender verified I was at the bar, my fingerprints weren’t on the gun and there was no powder residue on my clothes.”
“Then who killed her?” That seemed to be a reasonable question.
Richard swirled the cognac in the glass, the golden tones within the dark color highlighted from the lamp.
“They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make a determination at the time. I think they were hoping they could sweat a confession out of me and when that didn’t work, they had no option but to drop the case.”
“Then everything should have been all right,” I said. “It’s weird, but believable. I still don’t understand why you walked away and never told people what happened.”
“Well, that’s the rest of the story. I hired a top-notch private detective to check around more deeply than we had in preparation for the trail. He was as good as advertised and discrete, which is a hard trait to find in Hollywood. Turns out the police were split. Half thought I had her killed and half thought it was self-inflicted.”
“It makes sense when you hear what else he found out. The cops discovered a closet literally wallpapered with photos of me and clippings. You remember she worked in a beauty shop? It turned out that one of her regular clients was an assistant to the caterer’s I used for all my parties.”
I snapped my fingers noiselessly. “So she would talk about what went on and how things were around the house or even slip Ashley into the party? She could get all the details she wanted.”
Richard inclined his head. “Like I told you, people came and went all the time. I wasn’t an A-list only person, so sometimes crew members dropped by too. Ashley could easily have come in once she understood how things were and no one would have questioned it. Hell, I may have seen her, but there was nothing particularly memorable about her. Anyway, she suddenly became withdrawn at work and when one of the other girls kept asking what was wrong, she told her this story about the rape. She’s the one who convinced Ashley to press charges.”
I frowned. “So she was obsessed with you? Like a stalker?”
Richard turned so his weak side was braced against the wide arm of the chair. “Yeah, classic behavior. The detective figured either she imagined the sex, or maybe some guy she met at the party made it with her and she psychologically substituted me for him. She could have been drunk or stoned and completely convinced she was telling the truth.
When the detective checked my telephone records during that timeframe there were dozens of calls from a woman who insisted she speak to me about a personal matter, but wouldn’t leave her name with my service and the calls were made from different pay phones. It was probably Ashley and in her mind, I was ignoring her calls and rejecting her. The worst part of it was, if we’d hired this guy in the first place, we’d have known all this from the start and could have handled it all entirely differently. I still don’t know why the investigator the lawyer used never made the link with the caterer. I guess he was looking in other directions.”
I was trying to envision the scene of Ashley alone as Richard described her. “So when you really did reject her, that’s what prompted the suicide? But why couldn’t the police tell immediately? I mean self-inflicted wounds are pretty easy to distinguish.”
“If it’s a deliberate suicide,” he said. “I told you she was in a rage when I left. She apparently threw everything breakable at the door and knocked over some of the furniture.”
I tapped my hand to my forehead. “Which made it look like there had been a struggle and she probably had bruises from where you grabbed her.”
Richard blinked rapidly. “Now you’re getting the picture. The entry wound was just below the heart angled up.”
“Which could have been someone standing close.”
He took another sip of cognac. “Exactly. The detective thought that in all likelihood, she exhausted herself, became despondent and, well, I don’t know, maybe it was some kind of accident. A lot of suicides are unintentional.”
“Look, Richard, this is strange, but once the detective had the information, why didn’t you just tell everyone about it?” I asked again. “The police might not have listened, but if you weren’t going to be charged, they wouldn’t have mattered.”
He didn’t reply immediately. His eyes searched my face with the same calm resolution I had seen in similar moments with my mother. It was the look she’d worn when well-intentioned people advised her to leave my father.
How had Richard arrived to this same, soulful state? My mother had loved my father, believed in her oath of, for better or worse, had fiercely held the memories of happy times in her heart. It was obvious Richard had no obligation to this girl, so why had he allowed her to topple him?
His eyes searched differently now, a teacher hoping the student will see the pattern within the puzzle. “Well, now we come to the piece that’s going to sound really strange. Remember, accusations and preparation for the trial had been going on for months. Even discounting the tabloids, the toughest part for me was to realize a lot of regular people actually believed I drugged and raped that girl. Those same people weren’t going to buy suicide, no matter what the police said. My publicist had the same idea as you, for me to go public and tell my side, to get sympathy.”
“And you didn’t want to do that? Why not? I mean, okay, not everyone would have been convinced, but most would have.” It seemed like such an easy call to have made.
Richard’s eyes briefly telegraphed disgust before they settled into sincerity again. It was an almost imperceptible transition that I would have missed if I had not been intent on his face.
“Two things. One, several of the talk shows were lining up interviews and we were developing a strategy, trying to work out the best spin of how to emphasize Ashley’s unstable condition. The best spin and looking for dirt; not just telling the truth, not taking into account the pathetic nature of someone like Ashley. Then on top of that, a screenwriter I knew came over to run some ideas by me, the lawyer and the publicist. He’d outlined three versions of the story so he could jump ahead of the pack and shoot a made-for-television movie. He wanted me to pick my favorite before he pitched it.”
Richard voice dipped into a loss of faith that resonated in his words. “Three versions. One of which was close to right, but one of which had my damn stunt double doing all this shit. My stunt double for God’s sake, like an evil twin. The point being, I was looking at Hollywood at it’s worst. Ashley had been dead less than two weeks and we’re calculating how to capitalize on the whole tragic business. I sat and listened to what we were saying and came to the conclusion that virtually nothing I could do would change people’s minds. The ones who thought I was guilty would still think so and the ones that supported me would still do so, while who knows who would try and make money from it. I had to get away.”
“Did you intend to leave for good?”
Richard’s mouth curved, not quite into a full smile. Not at first. I told the accounting firm to keep the staff on at the house until I notified them otherwise and took my beautiful seventy-four foot Sunseeker Manhattan to the Caribbean. After a few weeks on the ocean, stopping in whatever port we wanted, I knew I couldn’t go back. I sent letters of reference for everyone, put the house and cars up for sale, got rid of everything except the boat and sent a check for $250,000 to Ashley’s sister, the only family she had. I spent the next ten years traveling until no one cared who I was anymore. Hollywood is very much an out-of-sight-out-of-mind town.”
Life in exile in a nutshell. An idol fallen, the star fading.
I drank the last swallow of coffee and grimaced at the tepid liquid. “Just out of curiosity, did you have any plans for what you would eventually do?”
“Not for a while. I thought that once the money ran low, I’d find a spot I liked and become a bartender or work in the boat charter business, something simple. I guess Fate had to have her say, though – not quite through with me. I was backpacking in Australia when the initial symptoms of Lou Gehrig's appeared. The village doctor I went to didn’t trust his diagnosis and wanted me to go to Sydney, but I called my friend at Baylor Medical Center instead. He hooked me up with some high-speed experts in Houston and I was the subject of interest for several weeks. They confirmed their diagnosis and after I considered the options they outlined, I decided to come here. Like I told you before, it was a quiet spot where I could be on the water. I hoped there was a way I could reconcile with my parents and wrongly assumed it would be easier if I was in the same state.”
This time I knew not to ask.
The pain that edged in, then out, of his voice did not stem from the disease that engulfed his body.
“So, I looked up Doctor Kiley, bought this place and finally contacted my parents. They said my illness was God’s judgment for having turned from Him and they would pray for my soul.”
I hoped my lack of respect for them did not show on my face.
“That must have been particularly difficult.”
“It isn’t really their fault, Ellie. They’re true believers, if nothing else.”
“It still isn’t right, you don’t deserve this,” I said quickly and softened my tone. “I mean, it’s not as if you were shooting up heroin or something. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, but I’ve had a lot of time to I think about how things turned out. I had it all, Ellie, a fantasy life; what would have been a gift from the gods in Greek literature. Maybe they decided it was time for me to pay up.”
This, then was the other part of the equation; an accounting – a bargain silently cast out or perhaps made unconsciously – Please, if you’ll let this come true, let me make it big, get this thing that I want, I’ll……
“Another variation on selling your soul to the Devil?”
“More or less.” He gave me one of the charming smiles that had made him famous. “Anyway, what’s done is done, but I wanted to tell you the truth in case you had doubts. It’s the least I could do for you.”
I could have told him the thought had never crossed my mind, but he didn’t need me to lie.
“It’s okay, you know,” he reassured me. “And if you don’t mind, I’m afraid I’ve rather exhausted myself and probably you as well. Could you help me to the bedroom?”
“Of course. I shouldn’t have let you talk so long,” I said immediately and stood. “That was careless of me.”
We shuffled across the hall. “Nonsense, I’m glad I finally told you.”
“Me too,” I said as I lowered him to the bed and pulled the covers across his shoulders.
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand and when he closed his eyes the good side of his body went limp.
Impulsively, I kissed his forehead. It wasn’t entirely professional, but it seemed appropriate. Even though I too needed sleep, my mind was in over-drive with Richard’s revelations. I went into the kitchen, brewed another pot of coffee and perched on the window seat until early morning lightened into a soft blue sky. Masses of clouds were backlit into pink-gold before the sun emerged as a shimmering, coral ball that would soon grow too bright to stare into.
I sat in the stillness, analyzing his story, recalling the timbre of his voice, the look in his eyes. If I had known it was to be our last substantive conversation, perhaps I would have thought of more questions to ask.
Richard collapsed late the next day and hovered less than seventy-two hours in a coma. Doc Kiley allowed me family member visitation privileges even as he adhered to written instructions prohibiting medical interventions that would have prolonged Richard’s life. There was no tender farewell scene, nor opportunity to exchange parting words. I moved between the hospital, the house and Mama’s in a silent circle, wasted tears kept private. Doc Kiley refrained from reminding me that no other outcome had been expected.
I telephoned the friend in Houston who came to supervise transport of the body. At least he was more responsive than Richard’s parents. Doc Kiley contacted them and they told him Richard’s empty body could go wherever he arranged. They presumed his soul was already in Hell unless he had repented.
Richard had long ago contacted his attorney with explicit instructions and he needed no more than official confirmation of death. Richard wanted almost everything to go to charity, but surprised me one more time with an amendment to his will. He left me $5000, any books that I wanted, and more importantly, the hand crafted wooden boat he kept in the library. It was a replica of his yacht, a memento he acquired during his time in the Caribbean; a symbol of a time when he’d been happy. I didn’t want strangers handling Richard’s belongings and Mama, in a way that came naturally to her, helped me sort through the personal items. Two couples were interested in buying the house and the real estate agent was anxious to clinch a deal.
I’d been too busy to think about the next step, but Doc Kiley spoke with the hospital administrator in Jacksonville and they offered me a new position. My life was to return to normal, as I had originally anticipated before I was diverted by Richard. It was time for me to get back to the business of healing. My emotions had been stirred more than I thought possible. I needed the balance of a hospital filled with excited, expectant parents, routine appendectomies and cranky codgers who were too ornery to die. I would avoid the emergency room and shy away from critical care for a while if I could.
I was packing the last boxes when I heard an unfamiliar man’s voice from the front porch and wondered if he was from the real estate agency.
“Good afternoon, I’m Walter Littencourt. You’re Ms. Daniels, I take it?” the man asked politely.
“Uh, yes. Are you here about the house?”
“Oh no,” Mr. Littencourt replied and stepped inside as I held the door open. “Doctor Kiley gave me your name and I was hoping you might have a few minutes to talk about Richard Mitchell.”
I hesitated. He was my mother’s age, or maybe a few years older with no sign of balding, his hair a distinguished silver. His navy blue jacket, khaki slacks and tie-less striped shirt had the fit of expensive clothes and his brown eyes assessed me quickly. His tanned face reminded me of the evening news anchors on one of the Jacksonville television stations.
“Were you a friend of his? I don’t recall hearing your name, but I don’t know much about his old friends,” I managed to say without the threat of tears.
Mr. Littencourt smiled, a smile that in some measure seemed not entirely trustworthy. “Let’s say business acquaintances. I’m a writer – mostly non-fiction books.”
I couldn’t link his name to anything I’d read and was embarrassed in case he was famous. I hid behind good manners and gestured to the library.
“Uh, would you like to sit down, Mr. Littencourt? I’ve got coffee made or a Coke, perhaps?”
He shook his head and sat in the chair Richard had favored. “No thanks. I know you’re busy, so I’ll come to the point. Actually, I’m here to make you an offer.”
I eased into my favorite chair and stared, not understanding.
He crossed his legs. “I followed Richard’s situation from the beginning of the Wellby case. An odd affair and a story that I think should be told. You’ll be a valuable source considering your position.”
Mr. Littencourt’s voice was solicitous without being overly flattering.
“Richard’s story? I didn’t think there was enough detail to tell a story,” I said slowly.
The well-dressed man lifted his hands and tapped his fingers together. He was the first man I’d seen with manicured hands.
“You are, of course, correct in one sense. There was plenty to write about, but Richard did not choose at that time, or since then, to provide any personal insight. That’s part of what makes this a fascinating tale. Just imagine, you, the one person closest to him for months, there at his deathbed. Your observations, the things he might have told you.”
He had to be guessing.
“I, uh, I wouldn’t think anyone would be interested. It’s been a long time and Richard, I mean Mr. Mitchell, hasn’t exactly been a topic of recent discussion.”
Mr. Littencourt increased the level of persuasion. “Oh, that’s no problem. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’ve been successful with similar stories and this one has all the right elements, so to speak. There will be a good market, perhaps even an excellent one. At a minimum your cooperation would be worth, shall we say fifty thousand dollars? Possibly higher depending on the outcome of the book.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. $Fifty thousand or more? My, God, think of what I could do with that money!
“After all,” Mr. Littencourt continued. “I personally wanted to believe Richard was innocent, but without the facts to back it up, it’s speculation. I can safely say that there are people who think otherwise. Not that what you know is proof that would hold up in a court of law, but it would be inside information that at least answers the accusations. You would be doing his memory a favor. Isn’t it only right that people know the truth about him?”
The truth. I suddenly remembered what Richard had said; his remarks about no one caring about the truth, about those looking to make a profit.
Was Mr. Littencourt any different? If I took the deal was I any different? Well, hadn’t Richard told me what happened? Yes, but had he told me as a means of making peace with himself, or as an instrument for me to gain my fifteen minutes of fame?
Mr. Littencourt smoothly raised the stakes as I bit my lip.
“And naturally, another choice would be for me to write your story as told to me, but I didn’t know if you wanted to be that much in the limelight. I’m talking about a short but intense period of publicity that would open you to rather personal questions, although we can prepare you for that kind of attention.”
I frowned momentarily. “Personal questions? Oh, you mean about our relationship.” Yes, of course they would ask. Would my answers matter?
“Yes, even though I know you were here in strictly a professional capacity, that’s the sort of thing people will want to know. After all, millions of women fantasized about being with Richard for nearly a decade. It can be unsettling to have people ask openly about your sex life or if the illness robbed him of his ability to perform. Like I said, we can get you through it,” he said sympathetically.
I don’t know what emotions played across my face, but he leaned forward, reducing the space between us, although not crowding me. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like this approach. The story of the pretty young nurse drawn into an unsolved mystery in the waning days of a dying sex symbol. It has a nice ring. Naturally, your financial interest would increase. We can work out an equitable percentage with no problem.”
A nice ring, an angle, an approach. What would sell best, sound best, make the most money from two tragic figures. People, human beings. Flawed, but human. Yet both dead, so who would be hurt?
I remembered the way Richard had looked the night he told me about Ashley’s death and thought of the years he’d spent running from the very thing I was being offered.
I exhaled and stood. “Mr. Littencourt, I’m sorry you made the trip for nothing,” I said calmly. “You see, even though I was with Mr. Mitchell for some time, our relationship didn’t have the kind of spice I suspect your readers would be looking for. He was a very quiet man and I could give you some observations, but not much more I’m afraid.”
Mr. Littencourt rose and spoke gracefully, his eyes indicating he was aware of my lie.
“Well, Ms. Daniels, a writer often proceeds down a path and encounters obstacles.” He handed me a card. “Do keep this. A story like Richard’s will have value for a while longer and my offer has no doubt taken you by surprise. Feel free to call me if something comes to mind.”
“Certainly and it was nice to meet you,” I agreed and walked him to the door. “I’ll look for one of your books the next time I’m out.”
He inclined his head. “How kind of you. As I said, I specialize in stories like Richard’s.”
I watched him drive away and stared at the piece of paper in my hand. I would tell Richard’s family in the unlikely event they wanted to know, but there were enough people in the world willing to sell their personal selves for money. I didn’t need to be one of them. I fingered Mr. Littencourt’s card, intending to toss it into the trash when the telephone rang.
I listened impatiently as Becky reminded me about dinner and that I needed to drive Mama because Leroy was replacing the fan belt in her old car.
After we talked, I thought how surprised Mama would be if I could buy her a new car. She’d never owned one because Daddy insisted that with him being a mechanic it was a waste of money to buy something new. And there were several things around the house she really needed to take care of, not to mention that she hadn’t been on a vacation since we were children. Mama could afford the necessities, but there wasn’t money for many extras and neither Leroy nor Becky would ever be able to stretch their incomes. My finances were better, although I didn’t know any nurses who were wealthy.
I looked at Mr. Littencourt’s card again and slipped it into my pocket instead of the wastepaper basket. Maybe my decision had been a little hasty. After all, thinking about his offer couldn’t do any harm.
Copyright © 2001-2017, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.