I'm Marie Lightfoot, or at least that's the name my publisher puts on the covers of the books I write about true crime. In classic "true crime" fashion, my latest one is titled Anything to Be Together. It's the tale of a murderous minister, the Reverend Robert F. Wing, who with his lover, Artemis McGregor, killed his wife, Susanna. Here's how it begins. This is the raw story that I am supposed to make you believe:
They were a matched pair: evil for evil, no holds barred. If the devil had split himself into male and female he could hardly have done a better job of creating two strands of a DNA for malevolence.
They felt their attraction instantaneously when they met.
It was easy to see, perfectly apparent to the only witness to their meeting.
As irresistibly as hydrogen bonds with oxygen, "like" attracted "like" that day in the church. But what did it really feel like, inside their bodies, the first time they saw each other? Did it pierce them like a knife? Did it jolt like electricity, shooting at light speed from their eyes to their breath, hearts, minds, groins? Or was it more subtle and delicate than that, more like a rare taste of something savory on their tongues? Was it love -- or lust -- at first sight? It looked that way to the church secretary who saw them meet. But what, precisely, did they see in each other at that moment that nobody else had ever seen?
Well, it is said that the devil knows his own. And her own. At a dark, submerged depth below the light of consciousness, they must have recognized each other. Lovers, twins, soul mates. Surely there was something ancient, wicked, and intimately familiar for each in the others eyes. Before long, they knew they would do anything to be together, even murder -- especially, and most deliciously, murder.
Too bad he already had a wife.
Too bad for the wife, that is.
That's what I wrote, so portentously that I have almost convinced myself that I believe it. It's overheated, isn't it? Sexy, steamy, as their lust is judged to be. It sounds as if the Reverend and the other woman were fated to meet, mate, murder. A jury believed part of it. They convicted him, freed her. Do you believe some of it, all of it? Ah, but you dont know the facts of the case yet, do you? Im not sure that I do, either, and I wrote the book about it.
My book, if not their crimes, begins with innocence. There isn't even a hint of sex to begin with, except for the body of a naked woman abandoned to the subtropical vines, the snakes, the insects, and the putrefying heat. There is only the pure curiosity of childhood, betrayed in a decaying Garden of Eden, on a stifling summer day in Florida.
Anything to Be Together
By Marie Lightfoot
The suburbs look as if theyre taking over Florida, but dont be fooled by appearances. Natives will tell you this state isnt what it seems. What it looks like is recent and skin deep; what it really is goes deep to porous limestone. Way down there, shellfish without eyes swim in water that Floridas famous sunshine has not warmed in centuries.
Live here long enough, and pay enough attention to its startling secrets, and you'll get the feeling it could revert to primordial ooze in the blink of a heron's eye. The Everglades could rise again and swamp the land, flooding new developments and turning them into ghost marshes. Hurricanes could topple every condominium on the beach and consume the last morsel of sand on reclaimed land. The gators could take over backyard pools, the panthers could prowl school grounds, and the bears that are confined to Ocala National Park could slip the fences and appear in town to ransack abandoned garbage pails.
It could happen, with only a subtle twist of the dial of fate: a bit to the left to get a monster hurricane season, or a bit to the right for global warming, and the whole state will disappear under water, just fall back into the sea. It wouldnt take that great a change in temperature or in the barometer to run the human beings off and turn Florida back to nature.
There are pockets of it, right now, where it looks as if its happening.
Most people have no idea they're here, these pockets.
They're hidden in plain view, often behind KEEP OUT signs in dense, dark woody spots along a highway. You could drive by one so fast you'd think that momentary darkness out of the corner of your eye was a light pole flashing past. You could pass one every day on your way to take the kids to school and you'd never even wonder what was behind that dilapidated-looking fence.
"What's back in there?" one of your kids might ask.
I don't know, but dont go there," you might say, without even thinking.
Of course, that would naturally get a kid to wondering.
Right in the middle of the most populous areas, there are hidden acres of snakes and Spanish moss, of gigantic looping ropes of vine. Poisonous frogs feast on insects that don't even have names. Tropical lizards disappear into the cracks of trees whose branches spread out as wide as their trunks climb high. This is the real Florida, as it was before people, and probably will be after us, too.
More kids know about those places than adults do.
When the grown-ups aren't paying attention, the children sneak in, on foot or bicycle, to roam the dangerous acres, and scare themselves silly trying to peek into deserted houses they call haunted.
On a steamy Tuesday in August of 1999, Jenny Carmichael egged Nikki Modesto into climbing over the padlocked gate of just such an abandoned property. Signs on the chain link fence warned NO TRESPASSING and keep out, but children don't seem to think such signs apply to them.
At least Jenny didn't. Nikki thought they did, or ought to.
"We shouldn't go in there," she protested.
They were ten years old, fifth-graders together at North Bahia Beach Elementary School, in Ms. Fran Baker's class. Jenny excels at soccer, specializing in a complex move called a "Maradona", which involves both feet going seemingly in four different directions at once. Nikki loves to read, but no horror stories, please. On sleep-overs, she always plugs her ears with her fingers and sings real loud if her friends start telling ghost stories. She was really really scared of this idea of Jenny's, but she didn't want to say that, so she tried to rely on legalisms.
"It's private property." Nikki pointed at a sign. "We'll get in trouble. There might be some man in there with a gun, and he'd shoot us.
"You're such a wimp," her best friend taunted.
Jenny, the daring one, is the fourth of five children. She is a red-haired, freckle-faced girl, always flaring into adventure and mischief, a bottle rocket of a child. But Nikki is an only child, quiet, and obedient. They're a natural pair of best friends, a perfect balance for their qualities of fire and ice, earth and air. The problem from reckless Jenny's point of view is that Nikki is a scaredy-cat. The problem from timid Nikki's point of view is that Jenny always wins their arguments, unless Nikki bursts into frustrated tears and runs away. Then Jenny comes back, shamefaced, to say she's sorry, and would Nikki like to bike around the block?
Nikki always would, if they don't ride too fast.
Jenny always rides too fast, and takes the hills -- when she can find them, in flat Florida -- like a racer.
They had propped their bikes against the chain-link fence around the property with the NO TRESPASSING and KEEP OUT signs. Federal Highway, one of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares in the state, buzzed right behind them. It's just "the big street" to them, which they aren't ever supposed to cross without a parent, but which they do cross, because their parents can't be with them every second of the day.
Nikki is the image of her Italian mom, with beautiful olive skin and big brown eyes and a shy smile that looks like an advertisement for innocence. She has a great giggle, and when it gets started, everybody around her starts laughing, too. Nikki has been known to set entire movie audiences into paroxysms of laughter.
It makes Jenny's day to get Nikki to laugh, but that wasn't what she was attempting to get Nikki to do at this particular moment. Usually, it takes Jenny a long time to persuade Nikki to do something the first time; but the second time it's easier, and by the third, Nikki is trailing right along.
Jenny dared Nikki: "Dont you want to know what's in there?"
"There could be a cool old house, or a beach."
Behind the property was the Intracoastal Waterway, where they also were not supposed to go.
"I don't care what's in there."
"I do! I want to see. I'll go without you!"
Nikki didnt really mean that. Being left alone on the edge of the big street sounded almost as scary as going into the dark woods behind the fence.
"Okay, I will."
Jenny didn't really want to be alone, either, so she tried a new tack. "It'll be our secret hideout -- wouldnt that be cool?"
That was an attractive prospect, all right, but to Nikki the patch of land looked as ominous as the darkness under her bed at night. Who knew what kind of scary creatures were lurking in there? Nikki is afraid of spiders, and snakes, and the dark, and almost anything that surprises her in any way. This makes it very challenging to be Jenny Carmichael's best friend, but there is nobody Nikki has ever known who can be so much fun as Jenny.
"Let's just go in a little, little ways," smart Jenny urged.
"One inch. Like, just over the fence. Watch this."
But Jenny was already scrambling over, and suddenly there she was on the other side, grinning at her friend. "See? I'm just standing here. Come on."
Well, that looked possible to Nikki, as long as they didn't go further.
She followed Jenny over, more awkwardly, because she isn't as nimble and athletic as her buddy is, but still she made it to the other side. Quick as a snake, Jenny grabbed one of Nikki's wrists and started dragging her deeper into the property, with Nikki fighting and screaming all the way. But Jenny is by far the stronger of the two, and before Nikki could stop her, she had them both into the shadows, already out of sight of the highway.
"I hate you!" Nikki screamed at her best friend.
They were bleeding a bit from scratches from tree limbs, and Jenny was trying not to look too victorious.
"It's cool in here!"
Cool it was, at least with regard to the temperature. But a sunny glade beckoned a few steps beyond, and it looked safe and cheerful to Nikki, so of her own volition she ran into it. And suddenly, as happened often with the two friends, it really did begin to seem like a grand adventure to her. She hated to confess it, because she hated it when Jenny fooled her, and trapped her into something scary, but...
"It's pretty," she admitted, looking up and around.
It didnt look so spooky in here, in this bit of sunshine.
They walked on, deeper, but only after Jenny promised she wouldn't make any sudden movements or the booga-booga sounds that Nikki hates. Jenny kept her promise pretty well, except for when she couldnt resist picking up a leaf and throwing it in Nikkis face and making her scream. Or faking a scream herself and shuffling the leaves at their feet, and yelling at the top of her lungs, "Oh, my god, its an anaconda snake!"
Nikki screamed and screamed at that one.
Jenny could laugh pretty hard, herself.
When they finally settled down, some of the fear seemed to have seeped out of Nikki, after she had screamed bloody murder at the phantom snake. She quieted down enough to follow Jenny deeper along a path that opened up between the huge trees with their greenery hanging down like enormous spiderwebs. And her eyes opened as wide as Jenny's when they spied the great big house at the heart of the property.
It was two floors high, though a tower at one end made it three stories at that point. Like the houses that the girls lived in, it looked Mediterranean, complete with arched doorways and a red tile roof. But the similarity between this house and their own cozy little homes ended there. Where theirs were freshly painted in sunny colors, the paint on this one had chipped away and discolored so much that the whole house looked a dirty gray. On the roof, only a few concave orange tiles remained intact. All along the front of the porch, there were spiraling columns -- Nikki counted six, out loud -- that looked as if they were barely still attached to the porch ceiling. It was clearly in what Jenny's dad would call falling-down condition.
"Wow," Jenny breathed. "Oh, wow."
"It's beautiful," Nikki said, and it was, in a creepy way.
"Let's see if we can get in!"
"We could fall through the floor."
"We won't go upstairs."
"There's probably glass, and snakes, and spiders."
"You are such a wimp. How can you not want to go inside? I want to!"
"Then just go ahead. I'll wait outside. Okay? You go ahead."
Jenny had a feeling that this time she couldn't talk her friend into it, and Nikki was being careful to stay out of her grasp. "Okay," she said in a brave, strong voice. "Watch me."
Nikki did. She watched Jenny stride up the wide front steps and cross the big porch toward where a front door used to be. Now there was only an open space. Inside, Nikki saw a huge winding stairway going to the second floor. When she looked up at the windows, she could see white fabric hanging down in shreds. She stared as Jenny stepped across the threshold and then disappeared from view. Then Nikki heard Jenny's voice call from inside, "Oh, Nikki, you have to see this! I bet a princess used to live here. It's so cool -- "
Then Nikki could hear her, but couldn't understand the words.
And then she didn't hear Jenny saying anything.
Nikki waited. And waited. And her heart began to beat faster.
"Jenny?" she tried calling out, but her voice sounded weak.
She took one tiny step forward, and whispered, "Jenny?"
What if there was a monster man inside and he had snatched Jenny and killed her? What if there was a crocodile that came up into the house and got her? What should she do? Run away and get help? Oh, she wanted to run away! More than anything she wanted to. But Jenny was still inside, and what if she was hurt and needed --
And then Nikki heard a sound from inside of the house. A little sound, thin and wobbly. It took her a breathless moment to realize it was Jenny.
Jenny was screaming, inside the house.
Nikki began to cry for real, but also to run toward the house. She didn't go in the terrible front door where her friend had vanished, but she ran around the side, toward where the sound of Jenny's voice was coming from. It was such a brave thing for her to do. If there were an award for children who do brave things for their friends in spite of the fact that they are scared to death, Nikki Modesto would surely win one. She spied a rickety lawn chair, and dragged it over to a window, scraping her shins, and sobbing.
She climbed up on it, hiccuping in terror.
Nikki put her trembling fingers on the dark, rotting wood of the windowsill.
She stared in, and she was so afraid of what she'd see.
But what she saw right away was that Jenny was okay, except she looked green as puke. But then Nikki saw there was somebody else there who wasn't fine. And there was a terrible smell. And there were flies. Nikki started to scream, too, and when Jenny saw her, she ran toward the window.
"It's a dead lady!" Jenny yelled in her face. "She's dead, she's dead!"
Nikki suddenly saw that she was going to have to take charge this once. "I want to go home!" she said with great and passionate conviction, in a voice that brooked absolutely no argument. "Right now!"
The two little girls screamed all the way back to the highway.
As they fled, the body -- hiding its grisly secrets -- lay on the floor of the dining room of the deserted mansion. She was large-breasted, slim-legged, dark-haired. Above her unseeing eyes, wooden beams intersected a ceiling where a mural of flowers and fronds was barely discernible on the crumbling plaster. Once, parties metaphorically raised these roof-beams; liquor flowed and waiters served dolphin on silver trays to rich Floridians. But that was decades gone, along with all but hints of original elegance. Half of a black wrought-iron drapery rod hung down from the one remaining hook, caught on one of its fleurs-de-lis. Outside that window, there was a patio where weeds had broken all the bricks. The centerpiece of the patio was a dry fountain with a statue of a naked cherub, now broken and shattered, in the basin.
Forever beyond the reach of the dead woman's outstretched and shattered arms, elegant catamarans cruised the Intracoastal Waterway, where she would never again go boating, trailing her manicured fingers in the water. Tourists strolled the beaches where she would never again raise her slim arms in lazy strokes through warm Atlantic waves. She had been pretty, but you couldn't tell that now. There were people who thought the world of her, who knew she would not have wanted children to find her like that, that she would have been horrified for them to see her. Worst of all, she was a minister's wife; to be found naked and exposed was a shame and a brutal embarrassment to her memory. But she had no say over any of that. Inside the hidden acre of property, her flesh and the house and the land were sliding back past civilization, back to dust and water and silence.
Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Pickard