Valley of Shadows- Chapter Twenty

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Richard turned to the last page and saw that his brother had listed Nicole’s home and work addresses.  Richard gazed thoughtfully at the page.  Maybe I’ll go scope out these places and see if there’s anywhere out of sight for me to park so she won’t see me.  Yeah, a drive sounds like just the thing to help me clear my head.

Richard grabbed his car keys and then decided to make himself a sandwich for the road.  He went down to the kitchen and stopped short, surprised to see Reverend Mother standing at the stove. She spoke without turning around, halting him before he could slip away.

“Come on in son. I won’t bite.  Sit down and I’ll fix you something to eat.”

“I should be fixing you something to eat.  You shouldn’t even be out of bed.”

“Nonsense child, all I’ve been doing is laying in bed.  It’ll do me some good to move around a little.  Sit down.  I wanted to talk to you.”

“Isn’t anyone else coming down to dinner?”

“Your brother left to go set up for a deacons’ meeting at the church.  Harriet isn’t feeling well and Rachel went to spend time with her friends.”

Richard wavered in the doorway, trying to think of a plausible excuse to leave.  The last thing he wanted to do was be subjected to her penetrating stare and cross examination.  As if she had read his thoughts, Reverend Mother turned and fixed him with a glare.  Richard reluctantly slid into a seat at the kitchen table.  She turned back to the stove and seemed to forget he was in the room.

After several minutes of silence, Richard’s patience began to wear thin. He hated his mother’s domineering ways. She never just came out and told you what she wanted.  You had to sit and stew in your own juices until she was good and ready to talk.  Richard considered standing up and walking out.  Then the thought of having to listen to her grouse about it later kept him in his seat.  She could be like a dog with a bone when someone angered her.  Richard suddenly craved a cigarette.

At length, Reverend Mother set two places at the table, waving away Richard’s attempts to help.  She set platters of fried chicken and biscuits on the table, followed by bowls of mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. Richard rubbed his hands together appreciatively. Things were looking up.  He had always loved his mother’s cooking.  They ate in companionable silence for a few moments. Richard had just began to relax when Reverend Mother spoke.

“I suppose you have questions for me about this situation with Nicole.”

“I do, now that you mention it. I’ve been wondering why you felt the need to blackmail her.”

“Watch your mouth boy. I had no intention of blackmailing her.”

“Then why were you trying to dig up dirt on her? Most people just fill out a loan application and let it go at that.”

“I’m still paying mortgages on the house and church. So, I have no collateral to put up for the loan and no savings to speak of. I knew going in that my chances of getting approved for a loan were slim and none. So, I decided to…improve my odds.”

“By blackmailing her?”

“What did I just tell you?  I wasn’t going to blackmail her. I was just going to use whatever I found out to encourage her to push that loan through. Don’t you dare give me the side eye.  That woman is no angel.  Helping the church us the least she could do to atone for some of her sins.  Besides, you know I would have paid back every penny with interest.”

“Did you ever consider that you not being able to geta  loan was God’s way of telling you that it’s not the right time to be expanding the church?”

Reverend Mother’s fork paused on the way to her mouth. Richard braced himself for a blistering retort. Instead, she lowered the fork to her plate and slowly pushed it away. Richard watched her warily. Reverend Mother sighed deeply and her eyes met his. He was startled by how tired she suddenly looked.

“I’m about to level with you son. Now, this is just between me and you. I don’t want the others to worry. The loan wasn’t exactly going to be for expansion. I started this little endeavour with that vision but financially, things went south on me.  Sometimes, I wish we had stayed in that humble little church that Gabriel built.”

“Are you trying to tell me that the church is…that you’re broke?”

“Not exactly, but things are a little tight right now.”

“How can that be? Attendance at church is as high as it has always been.”

“Butts in seats doesn’t mean the collection plate is getting filled. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a recession on. People are hurting financially. A lot of our parishioners are out of work. Donations to our community outreach ministry are way down. I’ve had to provide most of the funds for the soup kitchen and food pantry. Not to mention replacing the roof on the church last year.”

“Don’t forget all the money Rachel siphons off each time she blows through town.”

“Leave your sister out of this. We’ve already had that argument Richard. ”

“Doesn’t make it any less true. Has she ever paid back any of the money you’ve loaned her over the years?”

“She’s my child. I don’t help her with the expectation of getting anything in return. It’s enough for me to know that she’s okay.  You know your sister has always needed…”

“Please spare me the poor baby speech. We can just agree to disagree on that one. Are you still trying to get that loan?”

“Do I look crazy to you?  I don’t have a death wish.  I told her to withdraw my application. That woman tried to kill me over a little harmless snooping.”

“How did she even find out what you were up to?”

“Thomas told her.”

“I never trusted that fool. Why did you even ask him to help you?”

“He has…looked into things for me in the past with no problem.”

“That was minor league. Nicole is next level.”

“I know that now. I underestimated her. When I heard the rumors of medication errors and suspicious deaths, I assumed she was just incompetent. I figured I could motivate her to approve the loan because she wouldn’t want her new employer to know about the lawsuits or any other secrets Thomas dug up. ”

“So what is it that you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me figure out a way to make her leave us alone.”

“What do you mean? You’ve withdrawn your loan application and stopped checking up on Nicole. That should be an end to it.”

“If I was dealing with a sane person, that would be the end of it.  When I told Nicole to withdraw my application, she said she would wait until we talked again. But she said it in a threatening way, like she was letting me know she wasn’t done with me. That’s why I left the hospital against medical advisement. I couldn’t sleep for fear that I would wake up with her bending over me again.”

The memory of their last encounter dried out her mouth. Reverend Mother’s hand shook as she drank deeply from her glass. Richard looked on in wonderment. He had never known anyone to succeed in intimidating his mother. She actually looked frightened.  He reached out and briefly gripped her arm reassuringly.

“Just call and tell her you gave it more thought and you are definitely withdrawing your application. Apologize if you have to.  There’s no shame in it.  It’s worth it if it’ll get her off your back.”

“It’s not that simple son. She wouldn’t have injected me with Lord knows what if it was just a case of hurt feelings.”

“What do you think she wants?”

“Honestly, I think she wants me dead.”

“Ma, I know she scared you but…”

“Yes and I’m still afraid. I almost died, just because I sent Thomas on a little fishing expedition. People stick their noses into other people’s business all the time.  I got the distinct impression that she believes I know more than I do. Or maybe she just wants to punish me.”

Reverend Mother’s voice had begun to tremble.  She paused and took a deep braeth to steady her nerves, “All I know is that when I looked into her eyes at the hospital, I saw a completely different person than the one I dealt with at the bank. In that moment, I knew she intended to kill me. She’s not going to be satisfied until she either kills me or makes me wish I was dead. The woman is evil. I see now that I opened Pandora’s box.”

“Couldn’t Thomas do something about her?”

“Oh please, that man is putty in her hands. He couldn’t even keep a secret from her. I’m beginning to think that all those times he told me he hadn’t found out anything useful about Nicole, he was lying to protect her. Thomas was happy working for me until she came along. Now, he just seems bitter and resentful.  No telling what bad ideas she planted in his head.  She has him firmly wrapped around her little finger.  I’ll be blessed if she doesn’t talk him into killing me.”

“The way I see it, the only hope we have to be rid of her is to kill her or make sure she gets put behind bars.”