Carol W Hazelwood

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Assume Nothing

by Carol W. Hazelwood

Chapter 1

The hush of death hovered over the Van Pooles’ Virginia home. Unable to bear the dreadful silence, Cornelia crossed to the Bechstein grand piano in the music room, settled her fingers on the keys, and began playing. Every dirge in her vast repertoire expressed her sorrow over the death of her baby half-sister four days earlier. Suddenly, two long thin hands shoved hers down on the keys, creating a discordant forté. Surprised, she looked up at her father’s stern, narrow face.

“Enough! You’re making matters worse.” His authoritative voice sliced the air. “Your playing upsets Roz.” He removed his hands and stepped back.

Cornelia slumped, her chin quivered. Even at the age of twenty she continued to obey him, feeling she had no other option. “I’m sorry, Father.” Her hands slid off the keyboard into her lap.

“We’re all mourning Emilia’s death,” he said, “but it’s hardest on Roz, so stay out of her way. And no more piano playing!”

“ I loved Emilia too!” She swiveled around on the bench and faced him. “I took care of her. Roz didn’t.”

“ The doctor said Roz had postpartum depression. It happens to some women. And Emilia was so colicky and fretful that it was difficult for Roz.” He paused as if grasping for words to describe his wife’s alienation from the baby. “It wasn’t easy for her to have a baby at forty-one, and besides, she’s high strung and delicate.”

Cornelia nodded, knowing how miserable Roz had been during her pregnancy. “I don’t think she ever wanted the baby.”

Her father’s ice-blue eyes flickered and thin lines creased his aristocratic brow. “Perhaps, but she’s terribly upset over her death.”

“ Why do you always take her side?” she asked, waiting for his predicable rebuke.

“ She’s my wife. And as I’ve told you many times, my affairs are not yours.”

“ But I’m your daughter.”

He snorted. “And since you are, you’ll obey me.”

“ I do.” Her heart rebelled, and her words flowed out in one long breath. “This house is so cold now. Emilia gave it warmth. She liked to hear me play the piano. Roz doesn’t want me to enjoy anything.”

“ Good God! Are you still moping about Roz firing your piano tutor?”

“ Professor Stolz was wonderful. He thought I had talent. Roz treated him awfully. Why did you agree to let him go?”

“ Don’t forget I pay the bills in this house.” He slapped the palm of his hand down on the piano lid.

She recoiled, then gathered herself. “I know and I’ve always done what you wanted. I’ve stayed at home because of Emilia, but now I think I should go out on my own. I’ll be twenty-one in seven months.”

He moved back, folded his arms across his chest and sneered at her. “Oh, so you think you can support yourself? We’ve been through this before. You have no skills other than your music. How far do you think that will get you? You’ll be out on the street in a month. And I will not have my daughter in that situation.”

“ But you could help me get a start. I’d pay you back.”

“ We don’t need this conversation now.”

But she’d summoned her courage and couldn’t stop. “I’d be out of Roz’s way.” She plucked at the sleeve of her bulky brown knit sweater unable to look into his eyes and heard his retreating footsteps on the marble floor. Her gaze riveted onto his broad retreating back. “Father! It’s important to me.”

He whirled around. “That’s enough! I’ve given you everything a girl could want. You stay here on my terms, or you leave penniless.” Her father’s tall frame stopped in front of the music room’s mahogany door, his hand on the doorknob. He turned toward her once again. “This is not the time for us to argue. The police are coming to talk to us today.”

“ But they were here yesterday.” She pulled at a strand of black curly hair dangling from her ponytail. “Why again?”

“ I don’t know. Please, just answer their questions and don’t chat on about our family. Our relationships are none of their business.” He opened the door, stepped out, and closed the door softly behind him.

His unyielding attitude sucked Cornelia’s energy. She remained seated on the piano bench with her hands clenched in her lap. The scene with her father was a repeat of the one they’d had when old Professor Stolz suggested Cornelia attend a music academy. Her father had opposed the idea, refusing to pay the tuition. Stolz had shook his head, his long white hair flapping in the air, as he said, “She has a great gift. Why do you oppose giving her a chance?”

Her father’s face had gone scarlet with rage. “How dare you question me? I know what’s best for my daughter. She will remain under my roof until I feel she’s capable of supporting herself. Some day she can learn a trade.”

“ She doesn’t need a trade. She has great talent.” The professor’s long thin arms waved in the air as if he were conducting. “Sharing her musical gift with the world can give her all the life anyone could want,” Stolz had insisted.

Soon after, Roz fired Stolz without Cornelia having any say. The old professor had been her connection to the outside world. Her dream of becoming a concert pianist was crushed. Cowed, Cornelia had thrown herself into her music. Through Brahms, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy and especially Beethoven, she’d found solace.

With Emilia’s birth, Cornelia found renewed joy. On the baby’s first night home, Cornelia had gone into the nursery, picked up the bawling infant and walked the floor with her. She’d fed, cooed, and cuddled Emilia, thrilling at her soft warm cheeks, her sweet breath, and tiny pink fingers. Now, with the baby’s death, there was only constant, smothering grief.

Roz never went near the child unless Emilia was smiling and happy. But whenever Roz held the baby, the infant began to fret. “The baby wouldn’t be so fussy if you didn’t spoil her,” Roz would say as she put Emilia back in her crib, leaving her to cry until Cornelia picked her up and soothed her once again.

At night in bed, Cornelia would turn her head into the pillow and cry, Roz’s litany of her shortcomings ringing in her ears. Other times she grew angry and had vengeful thoughts toward Roz. She’d thought of leaving, but the baby’s welfare kept her grounded.

Now there was little to keep her home, yet she feared leaving without a source of income. But how could she stay in this oppressive household?

Unable to play, she rose, closed the piano lid and wandered to the French doors that opened onto the large patio. It was a raw drizzly day in the first week of March. Small patches of snow covered portions of the lawn as it usually did in early spring in Virginia. She opened the patio door and stepped out into the light rain, lifting her face to the sky to relish the cool air and fine drops as they fell upon her. From the open window to her father’s study, Cornelia heard loud talking. Curious, she crept along the side of the brick house to listen.

Roz spoke in a sharp high voice. “Thomas, the police must know it was a SIDS death. What will people think if the police keep coming here? What are we going to do?”

“ Do?” her father asked. “What is there to do? The baby died of something; they just don’t know the cause.”

“ People will think the worst.”

“ You always worry about what others will think.”

Her father’s remark made Cornelia smile. He really did know Roz’s self-centered nature.

Roz bantered back like a snarling cat. “We are two of a kind when it comes to that.”

Cornelia pictured Roz with her long, scarlet fingernails extended like claws. Leaning closer to the dripping branches by the east wing of the estate, Cornelia waited for the spat to continue, but there was silence, so she started to turn away. But then she heard her father say, “Don’t get cute. Our marriage was not made in heaven.”

“ It’s worked out. I gave you a child. Your own flesh and blood.”

“ So you said.” Her father’s voice was harsh like a misplaced chord.

” And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Cornelia heard a bang like a book being slammed shut, and her father answering, “Let’s stop arguing about the past. It’s the present we have to worry about.”

“ Do you suppose Cornelia could have done something to Emilia?” Roz’s tone dripped with hate.

“ I’ve thought about the possibility.”

Cornelia recoiled at his answer. She covered her mouth with her hands, smothering her moan of denial.

“ You know she hates me,” Roz said. “She’d do anything to get at me. Maybe she was careless putting the baby down. Maybe she shook her. I’ve heard that happens when people get mad at children. Of course, she wouldn’t have done it on purpose.”

“Interesting theory. I hadn’t thought of that.”

Cornelia shuddered. No one but Roz could believe such a thing. She pressed against the brick wall, feeling its rough wet texture against her skin. “No. No,” she whispered.

“ But,” her father continued, “Cornelia took care of Emilia for five months. Why would she suddenly hurt the baby?”

“ Stress. She had a cold. She seethes with indignation over you not helping her attend a music academy.” There was a pause, then Roz continued. “Why didn’t you send her?”

“ I need her here. Believe me; it’s in our best interest.”

“ I don’t understand.”

“ You don’t need to know. Take my word for it. Besides, Cornelia’s timid. She’ll continue to obey me.”

“ You don’t know what she’s really like. She’s not your flesh and blood. Sometimes people have bad genes and do bad things. They can’t help themselves.”

“ I forbade you to ever talk about Cornelia’s adoption. You haven’t said anything to her, have you?”

Cornelia gulped, stepped back, and almost knocked over a potted plant. Adopted? Her mouth gaped; her heart squeezed in pain. It took all her self-control not to go to the window and scream at her father to take back his words. Instead, she clung to the wall and dug her fingers into its crevasses. Water, running in rivulets along the brick’s ridges, trickled onto her fingers. Moist mortar clung to her palms, and she wiped them off on her wool skirt. But her skirt was damp, and her hands remained wet and gritty. She trembled, looked toward the open window, and once again heard their voices.

“ Darling, I’d never go against your wishes,” Roz purred. “But don’t you think she has an inkling? She sees photographs of her beautiful petite mother and her handsome father and then all she has to do is look in the mirror and notice she doesn’t look like either of you. She’s homely, I’m sorry to say. If the girl lost some weight, you might be able to find her a husband. And her hair is unruly and frizzy, and she won’t get it cut, as I’ve suggested. If I could pick out proper clothes for her, she’d look better. I can’t believe a girl her age would dress in such frumpy ill-fitting outfits. She has absolutely no taste.”

“ You might be right about all that, but I made a commitment and I’m honoring it.” There was silence for some time, then he said, “But still, things change. Yes. There could be another way. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I believe my future is looking brighter.”
Cornelia couldn’t bear to hear more. She turned from the window and stumbled back to the music room. Her wet hands smeared the white frame of the French doors as she shut them. Adopted? How was that possible? Why hadn’t she been told? And Roz accused her of hurting Emilia. Never! She collapsed on the lime-green wing chair in the corner and buried her face in her hands. But tears wouldn’t come. The anguish of this new information smashed what little sense of self she had.

Immobilized with grief, she thought of her mother, the good times, the loving times before her mother had died eleven years before. Cornelia remembered when she was about four, and she’d discovered the music room with the beautiful piano. After struggling to get onto the bench, she’d placed her fingers on a white key. That first note was like magic. The sound floated through the room and thrilled her. She touched other keys and the excitement continued. Then her mother had come into the room.

“ There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d said. Sitting next to Cornelia, she began to tell her the names of the black and white keys. From then on Cornelia had begged her mother to show her how to play. But her father didn’t like the idea, argued that she was too young, she’d ruin the piano, she’d turn into a honky-tonk player, get into trouble. But her mother scoffed at his ideas until he relented. Nevertheless, he insisted that Cornelia play classical music and nothing else.

After her mother had taught her everything she knew, Cornelia had a series of piano teachers, each one more knowledgeable as her skill increased. She learned she had perfect pitch, and practice was a joy, not a hardship. Her schoolwork suffered, for she spent hours at the piano. When her father threatened to lock the music room, she rushed through her homework so she could go back to the piano again.

Thoughts of the past drifted away, and she realized she had to deal with the present. Chilled, she blew on her hands to warm them and glanced at the clock. She’d been curled up in the chair for over an hour. Her long fingers were stiff as she smoothed her plaid skirt. The mirror above the marbled mantel beckoned. She stood, and with hesitant steps, she walked across the polished wood floor and stared at her reflection.

Her mother had been petite; Cornelia was nearly five foot nine. But her father was tall. Her mother had been blonde; her father fair with blue eyes, but Cornelia had black, thick, unruly hair and dark brown eyes. She studied her small nose, not at all like the aquiline nose that made her father look so formidable. And her mother’s features had been thin and regal. Cornelia fingered her dark olive cheeks. Her mother had told her that she looked like Great Aunt Betty, but she’d never seen a picture of the woman. What else had been a lie? Perhaps Roz was right, she should have known. But if she was adopted, who were her parents? Where were they?

There was a knock on the door, and Nora, in her black dress with the starched white apron, poked her head inside. “Miss Cornelia, the police are here, and your father wants you to join them in his study.” She hesitated, then took another step into the room. “You all right, Miss Cornelia? You look kinda pale, and you didn’t eat much breakfast. I’m worried about you, child.”

Cornelia nodded, but couldn’t utter a word. How could she face her father now? She hesitated, lingering over those words: her father. He wasn’t her father at all. Who was?

She slapped at her damp skirt. The police here again! What did they want? Didn’t they know her family was in mourning? Her feet dragged as she passed a worried-eyed Nora and walked down the hall. She bunched the sides of her skirt in her hands, noticed how it puckered around her hips and tugged the material back in place.
The door to her father’s study was open, but she hesitated in the hallway as if her feet were glued to the plush carpet. With halting steps, she moved to the room’s threshold and forced herself to raise her head. Her father, looking noble in his maroon cashmere sweater, stood behind his desk with a sorrowful Roz posed next to him. Her lustrous auburn hair cascaded over part of her face and her coral form-fitting dress accentuated her flawless complexion. How did she manage to look both beautiful and grief-stricken at the same time?

“ Come in, Cornelia.” Her father beckoned and introduced her to Investigators James Randall and Harriet Dolan. Cornelia noted a thin, Hispanic-looking man, and a tall woman with blonde, short-cropped hair.

Clearing his throat, Thomas faced the police investigators. “Why don’t we all sit down, and you can explain why you’ve returned.”

Investigator Randall said, “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”

Roz drew up a chair near her husband and clasped his hand. Cornelia sat in a small leather chair at an angle to the desk. But the investigators remained standing like prison guards.

“ We realize the death of your infant daughter has been tragic for you and we don’t want to cause you more grief. But the autopsy has ruled out Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as the cause of death.” He glanced at his partner. “We are still waiting for a more detailed report from the coroner, but Emilia died of asphyxiation.”

“ Oh, God!” Roz screamed and stood. Thomas moved to her side, and she buried her face in his chest.

Cornelia’s body stilled as if she were suspended in space. She stared at the investigators’ stern faces. “That’s awful. Poor Emilia.” Cornelia shuddered. “The bedding must have gotten twisted around her.”

“ That’s doubtful. There were marks on the sides of the mouth and cheeks. We believe someone held something over her face, probably a stuffed animal, like a teddy bear. There was one in the crib.”

How could that be? Cornelia’s face felt hot and faint, her stomach twisted. Except for Roz’s sobs, the room was quiet. Her father kept his arms around Roz, but his gaze remained on the police.

“ What happens now?” he asked, cold and businesslike.

“We’re here to question you and other members of the household who were in the house at the time of Emilia’s death.”

“ There were only myself, my wife, daughter, and the maid, Nora Porter,” her father said. “Nora has been with the family since Cornelia was born. And no one can enter the house at night without setting off the alarm.”

Roz pulled away from her husband, pointed at Cornelia and screeched. “She did it! She hates me. She did it.”

“ I did not!” Cornelia yelled. “I loved her more than you did.” She gripped the chair’s arms, her body on fire with indignation.

“ Control yourself, Roz.” Thomas gently, but firmly, forced his wife back into her chair. “You’re saying things you might regret.”

Harriet Dolan zeroed in on Roz. “Why do you think your stepdaughter killed the baby?”

Roz straightened her skirt, raised her chin, and glared at Cornelia. “She’s furious that I married her father. From the moment I came into this house, she’s been nasty to me. I tried to be kind, even offered to help her shop for proper clothes, but no, she wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

Cornelia was stunned, yet she couldn’t deny what Roz said. The feeling of dislike was mutual, but not for the reason Roz asserted.

Roz sneered at her, but smiled nicely when she turned toward the investigators. “She knew I loved the baby more than anything. Maybe she didn’t kill Emilia intentionally, but her subconscious might have made her angry enough to do such a horrible thing.”

“ What do you have to say?” Dolan asked Cornelia.

Cornelia blinked, catching her breath as she gawked at the investigators’ stony faces. “I’d never hurt Emilia. I took care of her from the day Roz brought her home from the hospital.” Intimidated by their stares, she murmured, “I loved her. I’d never hurt her. She was sweet and cuddly.”

The investigators fixed their attention on Cornelia. When they pulled up chairs to sit in front of her, she wanted to flee, but fear paralyzed her.

“ Perhaps you cuddled her too much,” Randall said. “Perhaps her cries got to you, made you angry, and you couldn’t stand it any more.”

“ No. No. That’s not true.” She shook her head. “I loved Emilia.”

“All right, Cornelia.” The woman investigator leaned forward and put her hand on Cornelia’s arm. “Tell us about the night of her death.”

Cornelia could feel Randall’s eyes probe her every pore. “I told you yesterday,” she mumbled, focusing on the Oriental rug beneath her feet.

“ Tell us again,” the woman prompted, sounding like a friend.

“ I had a sore throat and thought I was getting a cold. I didn’t want to give it to Emilia. Nora fed the baby before she went to bed.” She glanced up and took a deep breath before continuing. “Nora’s good at caring for babies. She took care of me when I was a baby. But she’s getting on, so Roz said she’d take the early morning feeding.”

“ The baby was fine when I fed her at three a.m.,” Roz interrupted.

“ Go on, Cornelia,” Dolan said in a soft motherly tone.

“ Emilia cried a lot during the night. I woke and heard Roz go into the baby’s room to give the three o’clock feeding. I fell back asleep. I heard the baby later, but she quieted down.”

“ What time was that?” Randall asked.

“ About four. The grandfather clock in the hall struck four. It’s quite loud.”

“ Why didn’t you check on the baby if she was crying?” Randall asked.

“ I told you. I had a sore throat and didn’t want her to get it.”

“ Convenient to have a sore throat the night Emilia was murdered.” Randall’s abrasive words fell like stones.

“ Now Randall,” Dolan said. “Give the girl a chance.” She turned once again to Cornelia. “Go on. Tell us what you did in the morning.”

Cornelia sighed, relieved that at least one of her interrogators was nice. “When I awoke, it was seven o’clock and I hadn’t heard the baby. Usually, she fusses in the morning around 6:30.” She glanced at Roz. “I knew Roz wouldn’t have her. She always sleeps in. I was curious to see how Emilia was.”

“ So you no longer had a sore throat?” Randall asked with raised eyebrows.

“ Well, yes, but I just was going to peek in on her.” Cornelia looked at the woman for guidance. Dolan nodded, so Cornelia continued. “I went into the nursery and saw Emilia lying very still on her back. I went over and-- and she was so cold.” Cornelia started crying, her eyes feeling like fire. Between sobs she said, “I didn’t know what to do. I yelled, ran to my father’s room and pounded on the door. He came out and hurried to the nursery with me. He called 911.”

“Where were you, Mrs. Van Poole?” Dolan asked.

“ In bed.” Roz studied her bright red polished nails. “My husband can vouch for that.”

“ You didn’t join your husband and rush to the baby’s room?”

“ Well, no. After all, Cornelia has a tendency to be overly dramatic about everything.” While Roz spoke, her eyes rested on Cornelia with obvious dislike.

“ Did you hear anything during the night, Mr. Van Poole?” Randall asked.

“ I’m a very sound sleeper. I don’t think during the entire five months of Emilia’s life I ever heard her at night or got up to feed her. Not sure I’d know how. That’s women’s work.”

“ So you didn’t hear your wife get up to feed the baby or come back to bed that night?”

“ That’s not quite true. She woke me after she’d fed the baby.” He glanced at Roz and smiled. “I don’t think the rest of our affairs that night are pertinent to your investigation. We ah-- remained in bed.”

“ So after three in the morning, you and your wife never saw the baby until the morning. And--” Randall turned toward Cornelia, “you heard the baby about four o’clock, but didn’t check on her.”

“ We’ll find out what happened eventually,” Dolan said, eyeing each one of them.

“ I certainly hope you do,” her father said. “This is a terrible blight on the family. You have my complete cooperation.”

Randall asked each of them to repeat their stories. The questioning continued until Cornelia’s throat, still sore, grew hoarse. Finally, her father stood and regarded the investigators with a haughty air. “We’ve been forthcoming. It seems you’re going over the same information. Are you quite finished?”

“ For the time being,” Randall said. “We’d like to talk to your maid.”

“ Of course.” Her father nodded. “Cornelia, show the investigators to the kitchen and explain that Nora should answer all their questions as honestly as she can.”

Cornelia felt woozy and hot, but she took a deep breath and led them across the hall. “You don’t think I killed the baby, do you?” she asked Dolan.

“ It’s not what I think that counts. It’s the truth that counts.” Dolan stopped and moved in front of Cornelia. “Do you want to tell me something in private?”

“ No. I--I already told you what happened.”

“ I see. Well, in that case, take us to Nora.” The investigator’s voice sounded harsh and not at all like a friend. Cornelia felt as if she might vomit on the carpet and held her stomach to keep from being sick.

They continued through the dining room and into the kitchen, where Cornelia left the police with Nora and headed upstairs. Did they really think she could kill a little baby? Did her father think that? Her father-- but he wasn’t her real father after all. She wasn’t a Van Poole. Where did she belong? Who were her real parents? She stopped outside the nursery, her hand on the doorknob. No baby, no music, no hope, no joy, no life. She held her fist in front of her stomach, wishing the pain would go away.

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