Authors: Jo Robertson
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
An Historical Thriller
Copyright © 2012 Jo Robertson
All rights reserved
With thanks and appreciation to all those who helped flesh out the mystery of Nellie Cropsey.
is a completely
account inspired by a real life event. While the author has used similar dates and locations, the city and streets of Tuscarora, the surnames of the characters, and other persons and events in the book are entirely of her imagination.
The historical account shows that Ellen Cropsey, known as Nell, disappeared on November 20, 1901, and her body was discovered in the Pasquotank River thirty-seven days later. In 1902 Jim Wilcox was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in her death, but a mistrial was declared by the state supreme court. Wilcox was retried in another county and convicted of second-degree murder, and in 1918 he was pardoned by then Governor Thomas Walter Bickett. Wilcox later committed suicide.
To this day a great deal of mystery shrouds the persons and investigation in the case and trial.
My sister-in-law, Sylvia Deerfield, first told me the story of Nellie Cropsey and showed me
the house that the Cropsey family lived in. The background of the cover of
was taken by her and is a view of the Pasquotank River. Thanks, Sylvia!
To Sylvia Barkley Deerfield, whose captivating story of Nellie Cropsey's disappearance and murder inspired this fictional account.
Tuscarora City, North Carolina, November 20, 1901
Nell Carver was a naughty girl.
If her pompous father had any idea his nineteen-year-old daughter had crept out of the house this late, he'd be livid. If he knew she went to meet a man, he'd thrash her within an inch of her life.
Behind the poplars and cypress trees that lined the edge of the river, this particular man lurked, spying on Nell for the next several minutes. Although he had no intention of joining her tonight, he always enjoyed manipulating her.
Nell made it so easy.
Dusk gave way to nightfall on the banks of the slow-moving Pasquotank River. The shadows and the Spanish moss hanging from the trees hid the man well. He pulled his Homburg lower on his forehead, tugged the velvet collar of his Chesterfield coat around his neck, and continued to watch.
Now and again he smiled faintly. He knew a wild kind of fire ran through young Nell's blood. She was as feral and rare as the Red Fox along the Carolina coast. Her recklessness fascinated and repelled him at the same time, her white-skinned, fair-haired beauty so at odds with her extravagant disregard for propriety.
He chuckled and fingered his beard. How long would she wait? He leaned against a tree, studying her as she pouted, then worried, and finally paced. She wrapped her bare arms around her body. Hurried off without a cloak, Nellie? Even from this distance he saw her shiver, a small, delicate movement of her shoulders that set her breasts jiggling.
He glanced toward the Carver house across the field and set back from the road less than two hundred yards to his left. He could barely make out its dark outline against the pines, but he knew the house at Pine Grove well.
It squatted like a fat white hen on the roost of its rich green lawn, an elegant old house, but the dingy clapboard and dark shutters sadly needed painting. Turrets and dormer windows angled from the front and a porch wrapped around the ground level. A side door provided another entry off to the right.
The parlor windows faced the rising sun, and in the early spring the porch was cool for sitting. In the summer's heat the kitchen outbuilding round back, separate from the main house, grew muggy and heavy with humidity.
The man knew for certain the thrill of the back room's dankness – the perfect trysting place.
Tonight the banks of the Pasquotank were chilly with the November mist. Recent northeasterly winds and rains had flooded the area, and the man's shoes sank into the brackish marsh.
He lit a cigar, its glow shining eerily through the thick night, while he waited and stared at the shadowy form of Nell Carver.
The heavy trees and brush that pushed up to the water's edge had stood like centurions guarding the dark mystery of the river as Nell had crept from the house after supper. While everyone else prepared for the night, she'd wandered along the bank, knowing full well she shouldn't be here so late with the night coming on and the Pasquotank looking so dangerous.
But the note had goaded her not to be late
and had piqued her curiosity. She snorted delicately. Keeping her beaus waiting was a clever woman's most important trick and Nell didn't like the tables turned this way.
Still, she'd never kept
waiting. She glanced around and resumed her pacing, catching her bottom lip with her teeth. She'd felt daring and adventurous sneaking out the back door to race across the field down to the thick foliage near the river. But now the safety of home seemed a thousand miles away. She turned her face toward the house and shivered again, but not from the cold this time.
The crush of footsteps drew her attention to the thick copse of trees to her right. She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it and waited until her suitor drew closer.
Moments later she distinguished his outline from the other shadows. He tossed something into the sodden leaves at his foot and ground downward with the heel of his boot.
"Oh my God, you!" she exclaimed. "I thought ... " Her voice trailed off in confusion, but she recovered quickly. "It's not nice to keep a lady waiting."
She didn't want him to find the puckishness in her voice amusing so she smiled in an attempt to cover her mistake. "Well, I forgive you, at any rate," she said lightly, tapping her finger against his chest.
He reached for her, pulling her roughly to him, the smell of tobacco strong on his clothes and breath. "What'd I do? What do you forgive me for?" He laughed and wrapped his sinewy arms around her waist, warming her.
"Ow," she cried, pretending to slap at his hands.
He smirked confidently. "You know you like it, Nellie-girl. You've always liked what I've got for you."
Then he tightened his grip on her and pushed his hands beneath her skirt's hem, upward over the silk stockings and under her drawers to clutch the bare flesh of her thighs, cold against his hot hands.
He laughed softly. "Let me warm you up."
God help her, she
like it. He wasn't as refined as her other beaus, but the things he did with his hands and mouth drove her crazy. She heard her own soft groan and gave herself over to the moment's heated passion.
After a while she shoved playfully at him and stepped back. "Wait." She let her skirt fall back in place.
"Why did you put a note in the hiding place? We agreed not to use it anymore." She caught her breath and pushed a loose curl from her forehead. "It's not safe. If my little sister hadn't gotten it first, my father would've found us out."
He drew her to him again, nuzzling her neck. "Silly goose." He captured her mouth in his and thrust his hot tongue deep inside while she forgot how she hated him calling her by those ridiculous pet names.
After another breathless moment, she pushed ineffectually at him again and pulled her lips away from all that sweet warmth. "Be serious! You could've gotten me in a real fix. Either Mama or Papa could've read it."
He laughed again. "If you want a note, sweet Nellie-girl, I'll write a thousand of 'em for you." He tugged at her hand, too aroused to pay attention to her complaints.
"For God's sake," she moaned, half mad with desire she couldn't think straight.
"You set me on fire, darlin'." He trailed his tongue down her neck and over the top of her blouse which he'd managed to unbutton down to her chemise without her even realizing what he'd done.
Suddenly in the distance the porch light came on, the front door opened, and she saw the outline of her mother's figure against the light from the parlor.
"I have to go," she whispered.
He groaned and released her. "You're always doing that to me darlin', getting me hot and ready for you and then leavin' me. It ain't right."
He pressed her hand against his groin where the bulge pulsed wildly beneath her palm. God, but it made her want to stay. With effort she forced down her desire, knowing the surest way to keep a fellow interested in her was saying no.
Nell jerked away and took a step toward the road. "Don't leave anymore notes," she warned, sounding more miffed than she really was. She walked backwards toward the road, teasing him with her eyes as she slowly buttoned her blouse back up.
He stared after her, his eyes narrowed with lust. Just as she turned away she saw a look of mingled desire and confusion pass over his handsome features.
Good, she liked to keep her beaus guessing.
From the start, the disappearance of Ellen Carver had caused chaos in the small town of Tuscarora City. Panic showed itself in speculative gossip, private investigations, and circumvention of the law at every turn.
To his endless frustration, Marshal Tucker Gage found he had little control over the case.
But two days after Christmas, everything changed.
Early this morning two fishermen found Nell's body floating face down in the murky, dark waters of the Pasquotank River off the Carolina coast. At first they weren't sure what bobbed in the water, they told Gage. Maybe a log or broken piece of debris vomited up by the black river.
They dragged the body ashore and raced to tell the Carvers at Pine Grove what they'd found. The family first, not the police, Gage noted, unsurprised.
After Nell's disappearance in late November, Tuscarora residents had searched frenetically for her. Divers had combed the river for weeks. Volunteers had walked every foot of the river's shore for signs of her. Local trackers had set their dogs loose. All in vain.
But now Nell's body had come home.
By the time Gage arrived at the river, the body lay on the bank. The men who'd fished her from the river hovered some distance away. Patrolman Will Pruitt stood at hand, turning a peculiar shade of green.
Gage eyed him warily, hoping his newest officer would not empty the contents of his breakfast on his superior's freshly-polished shoes. The lad had potential, but no stomach for the sight of the dead.
Gage welcomed the heavy weight of detachment that settled over him. "How did you come to find her?
Pruitt spat and stepped back toward the body. "Well, sir, I, uh, I was taking a shortcut across the field on my bicycle, coming off night duty."
His cheeks reddened as he pointed to his bicycle lying on its side at the edge of the road. "I noticed what looked like a bundle of clothes. The – uh, the red color caught my eye."
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I didn't think it was important, but figured I should check."
"Did you touch anything?"
"No, sir, I know better 'un that." The lad gripped a lantern as if it would burn his fingers and jerked his head toward the fishermen. "They found her out in the water, hauled her here in their boat, and then ran up to tell her folks."
Not unkindly, Gage took the lamp from Pruitt's willing fingers, then removed his Stetson and squatted down. Nell Carver lay on her back, her exposed limbs wet and white as a fish's belly in the gray light. Matted blonde strings of hair draped across her face as it tilted toward the river.
Gage waited for the wrench of queasiness in his gut, a twinge of nausea or disgust. But, of course, it did not come. Such reactions to death had long been purged out of him.
He sighed heavily and angled the light for a better look. A stiff wind blew off the river, along with a chill from the heavy mist, and he felt the crunch of his knees and the stab of his old wound as he crouched there.
Bloody hell, he thought, thirty-seven days after Nell's parents reported her missing, her dead body ended up in the very spot she'd disappeared from. Gone all that time, and no one – not family or her several gentlemen friends – not even her best friend Meghan Bailey – had any idea of where she'd been.