Years ago I started sketching out a story about a weekly Maine newspaper editor named Hadley Chandler. It was planned as an episodic story with threads that involve an old family farm, industrial pollution, the ups and downs of the old town.
I was looking for that story that I either have in on paper in a file somewhere or the electronic version got lost in a past computer failure.
When I’m planning a story I often write scenes, rather than take notes. That way I can begin to experiment with characters and settings.
This is one such new scene, and it adds to the mix Elizabeth Margaret Denard, a wealthy woman who is suing Hadley Chandler, and her dead aunt Senator Margaret Denard, who had deep secret her niece wants to know.
The woman’s voice echoed from the office to the press room in the rear of the building.
“Out here,” Hadley yelled. He set aside the pair of wrenches he had been using to tighten a bolt on the press and wiped his hands on a succession of red cloths until the ink was a mere stain on his palms.
He turned to the slim woman in a chic, unadorned black dress and wide white hat silhouetted in the dim hallway lighting.
“Hello, Miss Denard. Audrey Hepburn?”
Elizabeth Denard laughed, deliberately showy.
“Was thinking Sophia Loren, but I don’t have the chest for it.”
Hadley smiled as he escorted her into his cluttered office. That was the Betsey Denard he had known. Somerset High School’s leading actor, statewide renown, front pages in all the state’s newspapers, even a mention in the Boston Globe when Somerset’s cast won a New England award for a wrenching production of “Othello,” in which she played Iago.
Hadley had written dozens of stories about her career, from her transition from a fresh-faced sassy, Betsey Denard, to a hard-edged Liz Denard when she conquered Portland’s banking community, to whatever she fancied herself now as Elizabeth Margaret Denard.
And now she was trying to put him out of business.
He wondered if it was because he once wrote that her middle name was not Margaret, and suggested she had claimed that name to add heft to her declarations of importance.
Because her aunt, Senator Margaret Denard, was a heavyweight who fought for the rights of women, Native Americans, battled the paper companies over river pollution and developers over the need to preserve the state’s farms. Hadley knew the senator had gone head-to-head with Will Hathaway’s grandfather more than once.
Hadley Chandler was one of maybe six people in Somerset who was allowed call the late senator Maggie and not be greeted with a scowl.
“So, Betsey,” Hadley said as he cleared a chair, “What brings you to Somerset? You haven’t shut me down yet.”
Her soft, round face hardened at the sound of her discarded name, but she did not correct him.
“Have you not cleaned this office since I was last here?” she asked.
Hadley sat and pushed aside the pile of stories he needed to edit, and waved at the messy space. “It’s a museum in here.” He leaned over the desk and hardened his voice. “And if you win your lawsuit, this could be yours.”
A thin, inscrutable smile. “I don’t want to win, Hadley. Because I do not want this newspaper. There is no profit in this business, and further, I do not want to be known as one of those hedge fund managers who buys properties to drain them financially and close them. Certainly not in my hometown.”
“So why did you sue? You want that two grand back that much? I did pay her back taxes. It cleared up the title to the building. The receipt is in the court documents.”
Elizabeth Denard removed her white hat and the dark, round Hollywood sunglasses before reaching into her black handbag and producing a few letters in colored envelopes which she placed on the desk.
She indicated the envelopes with a nod. “I believe you know who this person is. As you know I am my aunt’s sole heir, at least I thought I was until a search of her estate house by my attorney found these letters.” She leaned back. “You should be honored, Hadley. You are the second-most mentioned person in my aunt’s detailed and immaculate records. Why is that? We’re you sleeping with her?”
Hadley was intrigued as she turned her face to the window and the firm, thin mouth and jutting jaw melted into a wrinkled-browed, lip-biting softness. Hadley wondered how much of that look was acting, and how much was fear.
“You don’t know, do you?” he asked.
“What does that mean?”
“You don’t know what to ask. You suspect your aunt had a deep secret, and you would be right. And I know it.”
She jumped to her feet, scooped up the letters, her bag and her hat and began to leave. “You can tell that secret in court.”
“No, Betsey, you don’t want me to tell that secret in court. It’s not in the paperwork, ” he said calmly. “Will Hathaway knows what I know. It’s what we have been trying not to say in court. In a way I think you’ve known it all along.”
Her head jerked to one side and her eyes narrowed in confusion. Her hands shook as she dropped her belongings on the desk.
That, Hadley decided, was not acting. She had been acting her entire life, that scared, uncertain kid she was as a child buried beneath the roles she had chosen to control herself and others.
“Sit down, Betsey. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
The office door ground open.
“Dad? Dad? Is it true?”
“In here,” Hadley replied.
It was his 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, the freckled faced, long curly haired spitting image of her mother, down to the old hippie clothes she had borrowed.
“She dropped the lawsuit? Really? I mean I just ran into Will, er, Mr. Hathaway, and…”
“Yes. She did.” Hadley rose and embraced her. “This old mess is still mine. And it could be yours. Betsey agreed to invest in the company as a silent partner so we can upgrade all our systems.”
“Wow. No lawsuit and new computers,” Sarah said, sitting. “What did you have over her? Finances? Secret lovers?”
Hadley motioned for Sarah to close the inner office door.
She did and then sat with a grin and one eye closed. “Ooh, secrets.”
“The kind which you can never tell. Life changing stuff. Got it? It’s not ours to tell.”
Sarah nodded, “Got it.”
“Do you remember a woman named Susan Smith? She worked on campaigns and other election stuff?”
“Right. She came to the school and talked about voting rights. Very intense.”
“She was Maggie Denard’s lover, for decades.”
“You have to understand, this started maybe fifty years ago. Maggie was in her twenties. A woman state senator did not….”
“No, Dad, I get it. She, the senator, or either of them, could not tell anyone. So how’d you know?”
“Maggie and I had been friends for years. I covered her campaigns as a reporter for the Sentinel. Over the years, we had quite a few drinks at the Senator Hotel in Augusta during legislative sessions. One night Susan came in and it was obvious why she was there.”
“And you, the great reporter, didn’t tell anyone. The scoop of a career and you kept to yourself.”
Hadley shrugged. “Private stuff. Didn’t matter.”
“Anyone else know?”
“Maggie’s staff, I’m sure, but they were loyal.”
Sarah took her father’s hand. “How hard it all was. The secrets, hidden lives.” Eyes wide and jaw dropping. “And you, all this time? How?”
“I gave her my word. Before we shared politics, we shared friendship.”
“How did they cover for it, which is a terrible to have to do, all that hiding.”
“Susan was a party official so it was natural that she and Maggie appeared everywhere together and didn’t raise suspicion.” He kissed her daughter’s hand. “But she carried it with her. You look at photos of the time and while Maggie is smiling, her eyes are dark and sorrowing. Look at what issues she championed. The rights of the dispossessed. That’s how she expressed her anger and distrust of the system.”
Sarah waved a hand in the air.
“So how did Maggie have Betsey’s mother? Adopted?”
Hadley smiled. “Maggie took a couple years off. Her seat was that secure. But the story circulating at the time said she was recovering from stress or fatigue – something a woman legislator could suffer without harming her political career because, after all, they were the weaker sex.” He winked.
“So who…? Wait, that’s why Betsey called Maggie her aunt, not her grandmother. They kept it from her. You’re not Betsey’s grandfather by any chance?”
Hadley laughed at his amazing daughter. “No. Please. The last great secret.”
Sarah screwed up her face. “How did Betsey take all this?”
“She was relieved and troubled. She knew there were secrets but had no place to start looking. Thus the lawsuit. She thought my records would have the information, that, you know, the two grand loan was a payoff… and no it wasn’t, there, kid. But after I told her all this, she never asked the question I thought she would: About her legitimacy and the succession of the family fortune. She’s the only one left. Instead she said she was attracted to the role of Iago because of his suspicious and scheming nature. So she schemed and plotted and up to this point it has left her angry, suspicious and alone.”
“Wake up call?”
“We’ll see. She’s planning to reopen her aunt’s estate house as a women’s study institute.”
“That’ll be cool. So, there, Dad, why Betsey no husband and kids?”
“That, my modern daughter, is the question for another day. By the way, I told Betsey her real middle name is Susan.”