Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO 
The Heiress

Around seven thirty on the evening of Thursday, September 14, two nights before Edward Hall's body was found, the phone rang at 23 Nichol Avenue, a Victorian mansion where Hall had lived with his wife, Frances, for a little more than a decade. One of the couple's maids, twenty-year-old Louise Geist, paused her work in a bedroom on the second floor and scurried across the hallway to answer the call. A woman on the other end of the line asked for the reverend.

"Is that for me?" Edward called out from the bathroom. 

"Yes," Louise replied.

"I'll be out in a minute."

Louise went back to work, though she couldn't help but overhear Reverend Hall's side of the conversation.

"Yes... Yes... Yes... That's too bad... Yes... Couldn't we make arrangements for about eight fifteen?... Goodbye." Click.

Before long, Edward came down and put on his coat. Frances entered from the porch. "I am going to make a call, dear, and will be home soon," Louise heard the reverend say. She passed through the kitchen and went out onto the back stoop, where Reverend Hall appeared moments later.

"Isn't this a lovely evening?" he said.

Hall bade Louise good night. She watched as he walked down the street, disappearing into the dusk. She would not see him alive again.

The next morning, Friday, Louise awoke to the sound of shutters being drawn on the first floor, a telltale sign that Reverend Hall had gotten up early to catch a train to New York. Louise hopped out of bed and hurried downstairs to prepare breakfast. When she walked into the dining room a little after seven, however, she was greeted not by the reverend, but by his brother-in-law Willie Stevens, usually the last one to the table for breakfast. Seeing him at that hour was rather odd, but then again, Willie was nothing if not a little odd.

A lumbering five foot ten, Willie had a singular appearance, with an ice cream scoop of bushy black hair, thick eyebrows, a doughy face framed by petite spectacles, and a mustache befitting a walrus. In Willie's fifty years, he'd barely worked, save for a few years when he was employed by a local contractor. He'd spent most of his adult life at 23 Nichol Avenue, where his second-floor bedroom overflowed with scholarly reading material. He devoured the newspapers and smoked a pipe, but he could also come across as something of a dimwit. He was, one might say, an eccentric.

"What are you doing up so early?" Louise asked.

"I would rather have Mrs. Hall tell you," Willie cryptically replied, suggesting something amiss.

As Louise passed the coatrack in the hallway, she put two and two together: the reverend's hat was not hanging in its usual spot. He hadn't come home.

Louise didn't think much of it. The reverend always seemed to have a good excuse on those nights when he returned home late. His car had broken down. He'd missed the train back from New York. Someone needed a ride somewhere. On the other hand, Louise had never known him to stay out all night. She figured that after his appointment the previous evening, he must have been summoned back out on a sick call. Edward Hall would have stayed at the bedside of an ill friend or parishioner no matter the hour, or so Louise told herself. She set the table for three and acted none the wiser when Frances came down for breakfast about twenty minutes later.

Frances was neither beautiful nor glamorous, despite her considerable wealth and aristocratic blood. She had a stocky build, which went well with her old-fashioned wardrobe. A reporter uncharitably described her as having "a face to look twice at—a long, narrow face" with a "firm, tight-lipped mouth, a suggestion of hair on the upper lip, a broad chin." A crescent-shaped scar accentuated her right temple, and she had "unusually prominent" black eyebrows. Another journalist dispensed with the euphemisms altogether, stating that Frances had "the head and features of a man." Her pince-nez glasses suggested, quite accurately, a woman of a different era. A new century ripe with opportunity had dawned and women's roles in society were changing, but Frances wanted nothing to do with any of that. She wore her conservatism with pride.

While Frances never had children of her own, she was devoted to her family and its legacy, as well as to charity and her church, St. John the Evangelist, where she had taught Sunday school before meeting Edward, seven years her junior, when he ascended the pulpit there in 1909. She was everything you'd expect of a well-bred woman from the late-Victorian age: proper, imperious, and, of course, private. To a servant like Louise, Frances had a haughty air about her, but something seemed different when Louise greeted her employer that Friday morning in the dining room.

Frances sat down and picked at her food, hardly eating. Louise hadn't set out the small silver water pitcher used by Reverend Hall to mix up his instant coffee substitute. Normally, Frances would have reminded Louise to retrieve it, but not today. There was an unspoken tension, and Louise finally piped up to break the awkward silence.

"Is Mr. Hall going to have breakfast in bed?" she asked, playing dumb.

"Louise," Frances replied, "Mr. Hall has not been home all night. I do not know where he is." 
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