Two women, decades apart, play key roles in the new Frank Nagler Mystery, “The Weight of Living,” due April 25 from my publisher Imzadi Publishing.
What is the connection between Calista Knox, the new best friend and physical therapist of Leonard, Detective Frank Nagler’s longtime friend, and Sarah Lawton, who died in 1932?
Can information from that old case shed light on the new one?
It is a question reporter Jimmy Dawson ponders:
“Jimmy Dawson read the last words on the computer screen and folded his hands in front of his face as if the shield could block out the horror. “The life of Sarah Lawton” might have been the most difficult story he had ever written.
The jitter of diner noise flitted around Barry’s. A spoon tinning the side of a coffee cup, a cough mid-sentence, “but then he said…”; the slap of a spatula turning eggs, a plate sliding across the counter top, the thump of the cash drawer closing; “Thanks. You bet. See ya again…” ; the rattle of a paper bag, the metal scrape of the door opening; street noise car engine shouted voice, Hey, Ray! the roar of a bus at the corner floating on the dusty, gassy vapor, a soft clank as the door caught, then vacuumed away.
“She had the gentlest hands, long fingers; elegant.”
That’s what her mother Jeannette Lawton said as she gazed at her daughter in her casket. She used to dig in the dirt of the back yard for that last potato, scraping her knuckles and being cut by the thorns of the brambles.
She tried to cover with a scarf the tan stain on Sarah’s neck, the now-faded rope burn that the mortician refused to cover with cosmetics because he was judging how the young girl died. “What a horrible thing they did to you, my girl.”
And it was horrible, Dawson thought, amazingly horrible, in fact.
The story unfolded in the diary that Sarah Lawton wrote and in letters her family wrote to the church before she was killed and after; letters seeking solace, venting anger. It dripped from notes written by staff at the Appleton home that were found tucked in the books delivered to Leonard’s store and leaked from the hundreds of photographs Appleton saved. Scene after scene, page after page connected.
Those rich soulless men taking the joy and lives of the girls they decided they owned, using them, discarding them; choosing more.
“July 7. More girls arrived today,” Sarah wrote in her diary. “They delight in the grandness of the place, the marble floors, wide sweeping staircase, soft pillows on chairs and couches. They know not that this is the gate to Hell. They know not that soon their souls and dignity will be stripped away, grist for the pleasure of heartless men who will laugh at your pain, the pain they cause and take such pleasure in delivering. Learn you will soon that no one hears your cries. Learn, too, as have I, that it is best to hide your heart to save it. If you show it, they will devour it.”
It was also a story that raised the most anger, Dawson thought. The powerful, brazen in their authority making no secret that they thought the lives of the poor workers they employed were nothing, and then proving it by taking their daughters for their own pleasure.
And here we are today, Dawson thought, with circumstances so similar only the names have been changed. See what our money can buy? They proclaim. See what lies I can get you to believe?
Sarah Lawton understood this.
“Aug. 12. What do these fine men tell their families of their repeated absences? Do they not carry the stink of our forced union home with them? Do they not carry some scent of me, of my skin they have kissed and fondled? But I detect you. Your flowery bodice spray, the sea mist in your hair that your husband carries on his fingers as he touches my mouth. What do you say when those same fingers touch your tongue and you sense the unmistakable taste of me?”
The details of Sarah’s life filled Dawson’s mind. Daughter an unknown mother, born into a house of incest, rescued by a poor but loving family; then the factory girl, but soon the sexual captive; finally the hero.
Yes, she brought them down, Dawson thought, at the cost of her life. And yet, here is the dusty tale of her brief life at the center of another more current scandal. Her death perhaps the apex upon which the new mysteries unravel.
But none of would end her sadness or pain, Dawson knew.
“Sept 13. No one hears me. My family is distant and thought I am happily working at Mr. Appleton’s factory, when in truth I was a slave at another type of factory. And now, here again, the sterile joyless farm home. How cruel is this circle of time. My mother once rescued me from this place, took me away from these cold quarters. How saddened she would be to find her here again. The smell of death rises here; such is Mr. Garrettson’s desperation. Nothing he can do would satisfy Mr. Appleton’s demand for revenge. Not even the deaths of the two young girls dispatched last week, killed for not being me. What depths we have reached in this world? There is no one to call to, no god, no savior, no friends to speak for me. This is the darkest day. They will come for me soon. The stiff rope will encircle my neck and the platform upon which I stand will be kicked away and I shall die. And none will know it.”
He touched the computer screen to close the story. I need to let this wash away.
Who else has ever lived a life like that? he thought.
The thought burst into his head.
She and Sarah Lawton are the same woman decades apart. The difference is that Calista is walking around, smoldering with rage and shame. That was the look on her face the day those books from the foundation arrived. The hated past, reborn.”