The Desk

by Jonna Turner


Prologue 

July 13, 1944  

 Thomas wasn’t sure killing the man had been the right thing to do, but the man was dead. No turning back now. He scanned the area and tried not to focus on the body hidden in the shrubbery. Too well did he know what would happen if he were caught with the body of a white man. The memory of how his uncle had been lynched twelve years earlier still haunted his dreams.

Crack! Startled, Thomas’s eyes darted to his right. For a second he thought he saw someone watching him.

“Hey, boy. Whatcha doin’ out here this time of night?”

Thomas jumped. When he looked to his left, he saw a uniformed policeman approaching. Sweat popped out on Thomas’s face. He wiped it off with the sleeve of his black shirt.

“Uh…I’s…I’s awaitin’ for my sistuh to get off work so’s I kin walk her home, Offisuh.”

The policeman tapped a baton on his open palm. His eyes narrowed as he regarded the young colored man. “Where does your ‘sistuh’ work, boy?”

“Uh…at the ho-tel, in the kitchen,” Thomas said. “She oughtta be along any minute now.” Just then, he spotted two colored girls walking down Second Street toward them. Thank you, Jesus! “Here she come now.”

Turning to look at the girls, the policeman said, “Well, you better git on along then.”

“Yessuh.” Thomas nodded and ran toward the teenage girls.

“How y’all?” he said as he approached them.

Both girls grinned and stopped. “We’s fine,” said the taller girl.

He stood still for a moment, not sure what to do. Then, he looked behind him. A block away, the policeman still watched.

“Uh…what time is it?” Thomas asked to make conversation and keep the girls from walking away.

The taller girl—wearing a red cotton dress with her hair slicked back into a ponytail—looked at her watch. “Near ‘bout nine thirty.”

“Thanks.” Thomas turned around to see if the policeman was still there. He was.

“Y’all got trouble with the po-lice?” said the shorter girl, whose curly hair stuck out from under a green-and-white bandana. “I see he’s over there awatchin’ you.”

Thomas shrugged. “I got no trouble with the offisuh. I guess he jes’ don’t like me hangin’ ‘round.”

“Come on and walk with us,” said the shorter girl.

Thomas grinned and nodded. “Thank ya’ kindly.” He fell into step with the girls. When he looked back, he saw the policeman amble off toward Main Street twirling his baton. Relieved, Thomas slowed his pace. When the policeman was out of sight, he turned to the girls. “The po-liceman gone now so I bes’ git back.”

“And, jes’ what was you doin’ over there?” said the taller girl with her eyebrows raised and her hand on her hip.

“Guardin’ a dead body,” Thomas said straight-faced.

Both girls laughed. “Oh, you’s sump’n’,” the shorter girl said and slapped her knee.

He said goodbye to the girls and ran back toward the body.

 

Chapter One 

Sunday, March 6, 1994 

Jeagan looked up and pushed golden-brown hair away from her face.

“Good morning,” said a womanslender, blonde, and forty plusas she settled into the aisle seat and stowed her handbag under the seat in front of her.

“Hi,” Jeagan said, trying not to show her disappointment. She had hoped the seat beside her would remain empty so she could concentrate on what the next few days might bring.

“Beautiful day for a flight.”

Jeagan nodded and looked out the window of the Boeing 727. “I hope the weather in Memphis will be this nice.”

“It should be a lot warmer than Denver.” The woman snapped her seatbelt into place. “Are you visiting family in Memphis?”

“No. I’m going to Memphis to do some…uh…research.” Jeagan left out the part about the murder.

“How interesting,” the woman said. “For a thesis, or are you writing a book?”

Jeagan’s face relaxed into a smile. “I graduated from Colorado State several years ago, but thanks for the compliment. I’m actually doing research on…on antiques.”

 The woman nodded. “How interesting.”

To make conversation, Jeagan asked, “Why are you going to Memphis?”

The woman straightened her brown tweed jacket under the seat belt. “I’m visiting my daughter and my grandson. I haven’t been back to Memphis since we moved to Denver in ‘91.” She paused. “It’s been nearly three years now.” Tears sparkled in her eyes as she continued. “You know, it’s funny how fast time goes by when you’re married, but when your husband dies… .” She laughed and pulled a tissue from her handbag to dry her eyes. “You’ll have to excuse me. I go along fine for a long time, and then all of a sudden, the tears start again.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry about your husband, and I do understand how you feel. I lost my mother two years ago, and I still miss her. And, Dad… .” Jeagan frowned. “Well, that’s another story.”

“If your parents were as close as Jack and I were, then your dad’s probably still grieving.”

Jeagan turned to look out the window as the Northwest flight pulled away from the gate. “You’re probably right. Dad seems so cold and wrapped up in his own world­­, we can’t even talk anymore.” She turned to look at her seatmate again. “I don’t mean to burden you with my problems.”

The woman patted Jeagan’s hand. “Don’t apologize. I started this conversation. You know, sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger than it is to talk to your family or friends.”

“That’s true.” Jeagan nodded.

“Anyway, if we’re going to travel eleven hundred miles together, we might as well know each other’s name. I’m Candice Franklin.”

 Jeagan smiled and stuck out her hand. “Jeagan Christensen.”

The women chatted while the plane taxied toward the runway. Minutes later, the plane lifted off from Stapleton International Airport.

After the flight attendants served a snack and the conversation lagged between Jeagan and Candice, Candice pulled out a thick novel.  She shifted into a comfortable position for the two-hour flight.

*          *          *

Left to her own thoughts, Jeagan closed her eyes and relived the confrontation of the night before with her dad and Brandon. After work, she had met them at Pappadeaux for dinner. She arrived after the men and found them, drinks in hand, seated on a wooden bench in the brick courtyard.

When he spotted her, Brandon Montgomery, her fiancé, pushed up the sleeve of his tailored navy suit jacket along with the cuff of his starched white shirt to check his watch. A look of disapproval wrinkled the smooth surface of his tanned face. His dark eyes cool, he leaned over and kissed Jeagan’s cheek. “Late as usual,” he said. “I could’ve played another set of doubles.”

“Give her a break, Brandon,” Geoff Christensen said. He smiled and his eyes, the same midnight blue as Jeagan’s, lit up when he saw his daughter. “You look wonderful, Jeag.” Well over six feet, Geoff unfolded himself from the bench and stood to hug his daughter. “You look more like your mother every day.”   

Jeagan smiled. Dressed in a short, black wool sheath with a black, lambskin coat draped around her shoulders, she said, “Thanks, Dad.” She ignored Brandon and returned her dad’s hug and nestled her face in the softness of his wool herringbone blazer.

 She knew her dad had lied; she did not look great. Dark circles, like smudged mascara under her eyes, gave her face a haunted look, and the loss of eight pounds, within the last two weeks, had reduced her size-six frame to near gauntness.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I hurried home to grab a coat. It’s a lot cooler than it was this morning.” A sudden gust of wind caught her shoulder-length hair and whipped it across her face. “Let’s go inside.”

 “Our table should be ready any minute,” Geoff said. He placed his arm around his daughter’s shoulder.

Brandon followed slowly. He pulled out his cellphone and dialed.

“Who’re you calling?” Jeagan asked when they entered the restaurant.

“I’m checking to see if there’s any word from the club. Matt and I are trying to get a court for eight in the morning.”

“Do you ever play with Brandon?” Geoff asked Jeagan after the hostess showed them to a table by a window that faced the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance—now a dusky purple outline against an orange horizon.

 “Not very often.” Jeagan glanced over at Brandon. “I’m not—”

Brandon pulled out a chair for her. “I just need a little more competition to keep up my game,” he said.

She cut her eyes up at him as he pushed in her chair.

He pulled out a chair for himself. “I mean you play a good game, but… .”

“I’m not quite in your league is what you meant to say.”

“All right, kids.” Geoff laughed. “No fighting in public.” 

Jeagan glared at Brandon as she accepted a menu from the waitress.

He took the offered menu and opened it, unaware of Jeagan’s look.

Not hungry, Jeagan laid the menu on the table. She took a deep breath and folded her hands in her lap. “I have something to tell you both.”

The waitress offered Geoff a wine list. He scanned it, consulted Brandon, ordered a bottle of merlot, and returned the list to the waitress.

“Okay. What is it?” Geoff asked, turning toward his daughter. “A promotion?” His eyes twinkled.

“It’s about time,” Brandon said. “They’ve got her working all hours of the day and night on everything from proposals to scientific manuscripts.”

Jeagan straightened in her chair and rested her forearms on the table. “No, it’s not a promotion. I just wanted to tell you both that I’m going to Memphis.”

“Memphis?” Brandon’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Whatever for?” Geoff asked. “Do you have a project to work on there?”

“No. No project. I’m going to see what I can find out about my desk and the murder I—”

“Oh, don’t start that again,” Brandon complained. He dropped his menu on the table and leaned back in his chair. “I thought you were going to take that desk back to the antique store.”

The waitress returned to the table, opened the bottle of wine, and poured a sample into a wine glass.

Geoff tasted the wine. “That’s fine,” he said.

She filled each glass and then stood with her pad ready to take orders.

“Can you give us a minute?” Geoff asked.

“No problem,” the waitress said. “I’ll come back in a couple of minutes.

Geoff smiled. “Thanks.” He turned to his daughter and laid his hand on her arm. “I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure at work and losing Mom like we did a couple of years ago… .”

“It’s not that, Dad.” Jeagan sipped her wine and tried to stay calm. “I have to go to Memphis. I need to find out what’s happening to me. I can’t sleep. I can’t work. Ever since I bought that desk.”

“Just take it back to the antique store and be done with it,” Brandon said with exaggerated patience, as if explaining something to a child.

“I can’t do that, Brandon.” Jeagan turned toward him. “I need to know what’s going on, and the only way I’m going to find out anything is to go to Memphis and do some research.”

“But, all those things you say you saw have nothing to do with you. So why are you getting yourself all upset over something that may have happened long before you were born?” Brandon asked, his voice a notch louder.

 “Calm down, Brandon.” Geoff looked at his daughter. “Honey, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but Brandon has a point. You don’t need to get yourself all worked up about something you think you saw that you can’t do anything about anyway.”

“Why won’t either one of you take me seriously?” Jeagan hesitated for a moment and then inhaled deeply. “I saw a man murdered. Isn’t that important?”

“You don’t know what you saw,” Brandon commented sharply.

“I do know what I saw, Brandon. You don’t want to try to understand what I saw because it didn’t happen to you. Nothing’s important unless it happens directly to you.”

“Oh, grow up, Jeagan,” Brandon said, trying to keep his voice down. “You’re just talking a lot of nonsense. Maybe what you saw really happened. Probably not. But, even if it did, what difference can it make to you?  You don’t know any of those people.”

Jeagan looked to her dad for support.

Geoff took a sip of his wine. “I’m afraid he’s right, honey. You need to let it go. You have your own life. You two have a wedding to plan, and—”

“That’s it!” Jeagan pulled off her engagement ring. Tears glistened in her eyes as she laid the ring in front of her fiancé. “I’m sorry, but the engagement’s off.”

Brandon’s eyes widened as he looked incredulously at her. “You can’t mean that.”

“Now, just calm down, honey.” Geoff reached over and touched Jeagan’s shoulder.

“I am calm.” Jeagan looked at her dad. “I’m just sorry I can’t be what you two want me to be.” Tears slipped down her flushed cheeks. “I feel very strongly about going to Memphis. What happened has affected me. I may not know these people, but I am involved in what happened to them. I have to find out for myself if I actually saw that man murdered.” She swiped at the tears, retrieved her handbag from the empty chair next to her, and stood. “Lorin gave me the week off, and I’m going to Memphis to see what I can find out.”  She jerked her coat from the back of the chair and headed toward the exit.

Brandon stood and called after her. “Jeagan!”

Turning to look one last time at her dad and former fiancé, she noticed that people had turned to stare at Brandon. She saw her dad place his hand on Brandon’s arm and shake his head. Brandon sat down and threw his napkin on the table.

*          *          *

Turbulence bounced the plane and pulled Jeagan’s thoughts back to the present. She took a sip from the cup of water on her pull-down tray and wondered why the two most important men in her life couldn’t understand and support her in her decision to go to Memphis. Instead her dad and Brandon treated her as if she were out of her mind.

 Returning Brandon’s ring, she told herself, had been the right thing to do. He treated her like a child, continually patronizing her. She missed him, but maybe she would get over that in time. Surely. She couldn’t and wouldn’t be treated like his incompetent kid sister.

The first six months of their relationship couldn’t have been a happier time for her. But, when Brandon’s controlling, condescending nature surfaced, her stubborn and independent nature retaliated, and, she guessed, an end to the relationship was inevitable.

Her dad was another problem. She knew he loved her, but since her mother’s death, he had wrapped himself in a world that all but excluded Jeagan. She rarely saw him. When she did see him, he was warm and affectionate, but most of the time he either played golf or traveled somewhere on a business trip. Could it be that with her golden-brown hair and honey-colored skin, she reminded him too much of her mother? Surely that was not it. But, then why had he shut her out? She hurt too, but she hadn’t pushed him out of her life.

With a sigh, Jeagan realized the futility of attempting to analyze either her dad or Brandon. Besides, right now, she needed to focus on how to find evidence that would either prove or disprove that a murder had been committed in Memphis on July 13, 1944. And, if a man had been murdered, what did her desk have to do with it?

She gazed out the window at patchy, white clouds like sheep grazing in a cobalt-blue pasture.  Her thoughts drifted back to when she had found the desk three weeks earlier at Fran’s Antiques on South Broadway in Denver.

*          *          *

She had been searching for a writing desk for some time, but didn’t want a new one. An older desk with character would fit in better with the decor of her new townhouse in Highlands Ranch. Alone as she browsed through the shops along Broadway Avenue’s Antique Row, she entered Fran’s to the sound of a tinkling bell over the door. Immediately, she was met by the musty smell of an attic, which brought back memories of her grandmother’s attic in Minneapolis.

Fran—tall, meaty, and gray-haired—greeted her with his booming voice. “Can I help you with anything, young lady?”

“Yes,” Jeagan said. “I’m looking for a small writing desk.”  She walked across the uneven plank floor, which squeaked beneath her feet, and up to the glass counter. Inside, antique jewelry sparkled in the fluorescent display light—diamond rings in heavily filigreed silver settings that looked like something her grandmother used to wear, creamy cameos set against pink stones, gold and silver broaches covered in yellowed rhinestones, and men’s black onyx and sapphire rings.

Fran laid his dust rag on the counter and wiped his hands on his apron. “Well, let’s see what we have in the back that you might like.” 

Jeagan glanced around the store. The walls were papered with white honeysuckle vines on a blue background and were covered with gold-framed beveled-edged mirrors, carved wood-framed pictures of pastoral settings, portraits of Victorian ladies, and fruit and floral still lifes. Worn wine-colored velvet chairs, a cream-colored tapestry Victorian sofa, along with an upright piano, a cedar hope chest, and several round oak tables filled the front room of the shop.

Following Fran through a second room, she noticed long oak tables stacked with books—most with worn and tattered covers—along with glass goblets, gold- or floral-edged china, enamel kitchen wear, elaborate silver tea services, and kitchen odds and ends.

In the back room of the shop, Jeagan noticed several oak and mahogany bookcases with heavy moldings and carvings, a black iron bed frame, gaily colored patchwork quilts, and an enamel-topped sideboard. Then, in a far corner, almost hidden by a large cherry wood desk, she spotted a small writing desk—mahogany, with a letter holder attached to the curved back.

She threaded her way through marble-topped end tables and leather-topped coffee tables. When she reached the desk, she ran her hand over the slightly scarred dark wood and touched the curved back with the letter holder—hand-painted with blue and yellow flowers. She felt the ornate oval pulls, now dark with age, and pulled open the wide middle drawer. Again, the musty smell of an attic filled the air.

“We only got that one in yesterday,” Fran said. He moved ladder-backed chairs out of his way to clear a path to the desk.

“It’s perfect,” Jeagan said. She smiled up at Fran.

He grinned, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I thought it might be.”

Jeagan bought the desk on the spot. Fran loaded it into her green Ford Explorer and she took it home. That was when her life had turned into a nightmare.

 


 

 

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 Copyright 2011, Jonna Turner - All Rights Reserved