by Max Allan Collins
On the day Jessica Ann Sterling's mommy was to die, the sun dappled the Mississippi River under a sky as blue as her mother's eyes. The fluffy white clouds seemed to take the sting out of the bright sunshine, leaving the tree-shaded streets of Ferndale, on the Iowa side of the river, washed in a golden glow. On a Spring day like this, the little industrial town seemed as peaceful as a vintage postcard, at least as long as you stayed away from certain parts of it.
When they would drive places, her mommy used to avoid "the inner city," which was filled with "Mexicans and poor white trash" her beautiful mother's patrician features would tighten as she ushered such pronouncements, a lovely upper lip curling into the faintest sneer. Jessica Ann's aunt Beth, her face (eyes especially) filled with compassion, referred to these same people as "under privileged," and her new uncle Paul called them "disenfranchised" but the twelve year-old had noticed that her uncle and aunt seemed to avoid that part of town, too.
Beth had told the child she could skip Saturday morning choir practice, "considering." Considering my mother's being murdered today, the child had thought, but kept it to herself; she had been well-trained by her mother not to be snippy.
But Jessica Ann had wanted to go, had insisted on going, even though it was only a sort of excuse. Anything to make this terrible day more ordinary.
And, too, she had felt a yearning to be inside the church. She believed in God; that was something her mother had given her -- prayers and Sunday school and church had been a big part of her little life.
So when the child and her uncle and aunt pulled up outside the angular contemporary structure with its soothing sandy brick and its big circular stained-glass window held together by a metallic modernistic cross, she felt a surge of hope. Birds were singing in trees whose shimmering leaves were so green they'd have been at home in Oz. Beds of tulips, their pastel bells leaning gently in the breeze, hugged the church walls.
God will not let this happen to Mommy, the child thought, with a sudden certainly. He could never let such a terrible thing happen.
It did not occur to her, in that solitary hopeful moment surrounded as it was by minutes and hours of dread, that God had allowed the many terrible things to occur that had led to her mother being held in a Death Row cell at the state prison. Gifted though the child was, she had not waded through the philosophical and theological morass of God's will as it related to man's free will; but then, who has?
Soon, like the birds in those blindingly green, sun-reflecting trees outside, Jessica Ann was inside singing. The kids were aligned on the altar steps, the sun filtering its golden way through the looming round window's petal-like panes, as the choir director -- a barrel-chested older gentleman with a kind manner and booming voice -- ran them through their two special "Mother's Day" numbers.
Jessica Ann's golden hair was neatly ribboned back but still brushed her shoulders, her pale green Spring frock with its floral pattern and white Peter Pan collar setting her off from the more casually dressed members of the First Baptist Junior choir (Saturday morning rehearsal wasn't real church); of course, Jessica Ann wasn't dressed up for the rehearsal, but for what would come after. The delicately pretty, cherubic-cheeked child was doing her best to get lost in the song, and it wasn't easy.
The kids were practicing "Amazing Grace," and the part about a wretch getting saved made her think of her mother. Also, the choir would be singing this on Mother's Day, and -- her hopeful thoughts long since withered, any heavenly signs or insights dashed by just another typical choir practice -- that made her think of how her mother would be dead by Mother's Day.
Aunt Beth and Uncle Paul were waiting at the back of the church. Other parents, scattered around the large, starkly beautiful sanctuary, watching the rehearsal, were seated in pews; but her uncle and aunt were keeping to themselves, standing behind the back row, perhaps not wanting to deal with any embarrassing questions. All over the state, the newspapers and TV had been full of what would happen today; and in small-town Ferndale this was a big event indeed. Bigger than the sesquicentennial; bigger than the flood of '93.
Jessica Ann had been living with Aunt Beth, since Mommy was arrested on the murder charge; and with Uncle Paul, too, since he and Aunt Beth got married just after Christmas. She had not talked to her mother since that nightmare night in that junkyard, where the child had fled believing her mother intended to kill her. And she had not seen her mother since the day the child testified in the trial.
In the courtroom -- a severe wooden chamber not unlike this one -- Mommy had been sitting next to Mr. Ekhardt, her attorney, at a table, and Mommy had looked very small, almost like a child herself -- wearing a simple gray suit, her hair back in a modest bun, no make-up, hands folded, like a nun. Mommy had cried as Jessica Ann testified, and so had Jessica Ann; but Jessica Ann could only know for certain that her own tears were true.
According to Aunt Beth, Jessica Ann's mother had not wanted the child to visit her at the state prison. Jessica Ann wasn't sure her aunt was telling the truth about whose idea it was that the girl not see her mother.
Her aunt and uncle were whispering to each other, now, back at the rear of the sanctuary. Jessica Ann couldn't hear them, but if she could have, she would not have been surprised by the subject matter, or by their respective attitudes.
"I think this is a mistake," Beth was saying. She was a willowy brunette with large luminous brown eyes, high cheekbones and only a hint of make-up. Her attire -- a pale yellow suit with wide faded-gray stripes -- was as somber as her expression.
"Not letting Jessy see her mother," Paul Conway said, "that would be the mistake."
He was a boyishly handsome forty, his dark hair styled slickly back; he wore a respectfully conservative brown suit, and he -- like Beth -- still wore the dark tan acquired on a recent Caribbean cruise.
"She's a monster," Beth said tightly. "Why put Jessica Ann through a nightmare like that?"
Conway was shocked by his wife's vehemence. He knew well how bitter Beth had become, how spiteful the events of the past year had made her. But he also knew his wife had as a good a heart as any woman he'd ever known.
"This is Jessica Ann's mother we're talking about," he said, trying to be gentle but his disapproval coming through. "And your sister...."
Indignation made her eyes and nostrils flare in the hardened mask of her face. "She tried to kill that little girl."
They kept their voices hushed, despite the intensity of their words. The last thing either of them wanted was to be overheard by any of the good churchgoing citizens of Ferndale.
"But she didn't," he reminded her.
"If Lt. March hadn't arrived..."
"She's always said she wouldn't have done it."
"And you believe her? My sister? A pathological liar? A sociopath?"
Beth was virtually quoting his own words back to him.
"She's a sick woman," he admitted.
"She's taking the cure today, isn't she?"
"That sounds more like your sister than you."
She glared at him. "You don't have to insult me."
He sighed as he patted the air. "You have every right to feel the way you do."
"I'm just saying, if I had my way, they wouldn't be doing this."
Beth's mouth twitched, then settled back into an expressionless line. "It's what they do to rabid dogs."
He took her by the arms and with tender force swung her to him, though she turned her face away. "Your sister dies this afternoon. She wants to say goodbye to you...and her daughter."
Beth said nothing.
"Jesus, Beth -- would you deny her that?"
He swallowed. Nodded. "Fine. But do you want to deny Jessica Ann of it? That kid's facing the most traumatic event of her life...and with what's she been through, that's saying something. We have to help Jessica Ann deal with today, so that her tomorrows aren't completely screwed up -- and refusing her mother's last wish, and ignoring that child's desire to see her mom one last time, is no way to start."
The words were getting to her, he could tell; but still she looked away. He had to get through to her. He had to.
"Look at me," he demanded gently. "The woman I married wasn't cruel....The woman I married was a sucker for a sad movie. The woman I married cries at card tricks."
A tiny smile flickered on her lips.
"Beth....Think about where you are."
And Beth's eyes turned to the lovely sanctuary before them, the round stained glass window bathing golden light on the pews, the simple cross on the altar peeking through the angelic faces of singing children, children singing of redemption ("I once was lost..."), Jessica Ann's pretty features (so like her mother's) among them.
She folded herself into his arms. "You're right." And now the hard mask melted and he looked into pure love, and the pure loveliness of his radiant wife and now she kidded him, saying, "You're always right."
He chuckled and gave her a peck of a kiss, which was beginning to turn into something more serious, when he drew away a bit, chiding, "Think about where you are...."
She laughed a little and so did he, hugging her, comforting her, and they gazed toward the singing children and the sad sweet face of their niece.
He knew that Beth, too, needed to deal with today, whether she had any sense of that or not. Like Jessica Ann, Beth had been through so much, and had been deeply and thoroughly traumatized. Not wanting to give himself too much credit, Conway knew that he had played a big role in helping Beth hold onto her sanity.
They had met during the trial. Conway, originally a New Yorker, lately an L.A. resident, had come to cover the sensational "Killer Mommy" trial (as the supermarket tabloids had dubbed it). He'd been reluctant, at first, but his editor had initially suggested, then insisted, that he make this the follow-up to his O.J. book, which had gotten lost in the shuffle of so many such volumes.
"You're ready for a comeback, kid," Ballard, his editor, had said. "You haven't hit the Times list since Choked, and that was five years ago. Your contract killer book was a stiff in hardcover -- if it wasn't for paperback, you'd be out rustling up magazine assignments and lucky to find anything."
Conway knew Ballard was right -- and the "Mommy" case had been midwestern through and through, and hadn't it been his heartland serial killer book -- Choked: The Mississippi Valley Strangler -- that had put him on the map as the "king of true crime"? For a while there it looked like he was going to give Ann Rule and Jack Olsen a run for the money; but when Hollywood's plans to cast Brad Pitt as the strangler fell through and sent the movie back into development hell, he was sorely in need of a new hot case.
And The Mommy Murders had indeed put him back on the bestseller list, with the film rights sold to Fox and Glen Close signed to play Mrs. Sterling, the "killer mommy." If the theatrical version fell through, Cybill Shepherd was warming up in the bullpen to play Mommy in a TV movie.
Meeting Beth, getting close to her in his efforts to understand this bizarre and complex case, had been a bonus Conway could never have foreseen. She was as sweet and intelligent a woman as he had ever encountered; and she was so different from the women he'd known on either coast.
Maybe it was her midwestern upbringing; maybe it was her domination by her beautiful older sister.
But Beth did not make the demands so many "new women" made; she was content to be his support system, to keep his house and, someday, someday soon he hoped, raise his children. He knew, from watching how good she was with Jessica Ann, that she would make a wonderful mother.
If wanting an old-fashioned girl like Beth made him shallow, so be it; if moving to a smalltown where he could keep a low profile and concentrate on his work made him a coward, who cared? What he'd spent on the beautiful spacious house in Mark Twain Manor -- his neighbors, in the trendy development, were mostly CEOs and other high-ranking executives -- wouldn't have got him a shack in Beverly Hills, or covered a year's rent on an East Side apartment.
Up at the front of the sanctuary, the choir director released his young charges with some words of encouragement, and news of refreshments waiting downstairs, and the angels fled from the altar steps, turning instantly into unruly little devils.
"Hey hey hey!" the choir director called gruffly, peering over his half-glasses, looped around his neck on a chain. He was a grizzly in a sweater vest. "Slow down! You wanna kill somebody?"
The thundering herd had left Jessica Ann behind. This time spent inside the church not giving her what she'd wanted, what she'd so desperately needed, she trudged down the aisle, head low, spirits likewise. Her aunt met her half-way, slipping an arm around the child, while her uncle remained poised at the rear of the sanctuary.
"If you want to stay," Beth said, "for the cookies and Kool-Aid, we have time..."
"I'm not hungry."
They shuffled along as the parents who'd been watching the rehearsal filed out, to join their kids for refreshments downstairs.
Jessica Ann's head raised, her eyes landing momentarily on her aunt's hovering face. "I don't...I don't have to watch them kill her, do I?"
"No!" Beth's horrified response echoed in the chamber. A few faces turned toward her, and Beth gathered the child closer as they walked, whispering, "Of course not..."
"I want to see her," Jessica Ann said, extricating herself from her aunt's loving grasp. "I want to see her, but I won't watch her die. No one can make me do that."
Paul had heard this last exchange, and he placed a hand gently on the child's shoulder. "No one's going to," he said.
"What if Mommy wants me to?"
Beth, leaning down, said, "She won't."
Jessica Ann wasn't sure. Her mother could be pretty weird, sometimes. "You don't even have to go today," Paul said. "If you're not up for this...."
"I'm just not up for seeing her...you know...suffer."
Paul held the child's hand as the three of them walked out of the church, into the parking lot where the sun was shining happily, apparently unaware of what was happening below. But the birds had stopped singing, Jessica Ann noticed.
"It won't hurt," Conway said, opening the rear door of the BMW for the child. "It's just like getting a shot."
Jessica Ann smirked at this typical adult stupidity. "Are you kidding? Nothing hurts worse than a shot." And she crawled in back, not seeing the helpless exchange of expressions between her aunt and uncle before they too got into the car and drove away, the church watching them go in mute indifference, as if it were nothing more than a building.