BY: BOB BICKFORD
During the summer of 1946, a group of children play a kissing game behind a general store in rural Georgia. It’s just kids having fun, until one innocent kiss leads to the brutal beating death of a ten-year-old boy. The horrific hate crime shakes an entire town. It spawns a series of murders, and a secret that is hidden for generations.
Mike Latta follows the story back into the heat and humidity of a sixty-five-year-old Georgia summer, back to dirt roads, wooden bridges, and muddy-water fishing holes, back to a single kiss that has killed, and killed again. It’s a kiss that has slept for decades, but now it’s awake. Learning its secret may cost Mike his life.
Fiction inspired by the real life Emmett Till murder, Deadly Kiss is the story of loves that won’t stay lost and ghosts that just won’t sleep.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Deadly Kiss by Bob Bickford, Mike Latta gets a call from his father that things aren’t going well. Someone is after his dad, but Mike can’t imagine who it could be or why. When his father comes to stay with him, he tells Mike an incredible tale about a stolen kiss, the murder of a young black boy, and a chain of events that started when Mike’s father was ten years old and still haunted him today. When his father dies suddenly, Mike is left to deal with his estate, only to discover that someone has been blackmailing the old man. Now Mike is determined to find out who it is and make them pay. What he discovers, with the help of friendly and not-so-friendly spirits, rocks him to the core.
The book is well written, a chilling tale of spirits who can’t rest, due to the consequences of a childish prank almost seventy years before—a thought-provoking story that will make you sit up and take notice.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Deadly Kiss by Bob Bickford is the story of an innocent kiss by a couple of ten-year-olds—one black and one white—in rural Georgia, and the consequences of such an act when exacerbated by ignorance, pride, hate, and bigotry. The simple kiss between a white girl and a black boy resulted in the murder of an innocent child and spawned a series of murders over the course of sixty-plus years. Helped by the ghost of the murdered black boy, our hero, Mike Latta, beings to unravel a tale of hate and bigotry so common in the South in the forties, fifties and beyond. The author takes us on a journey back in time to when life was simpler, but also deadlier, and the color of your skin determined not only your social status, but sometimes whether you lived or died.
Bickford skillfully navigates through the past and the present to create a thrilling tale of murder, the corruption of innocence, and a serial killer bent on erasing entire families, if necessary, in order to protect a shameful secret. Deadly Kiss is a page-turner that will catch and hold your interest from beginning to end.
My earliest memory was of a merry-go-round. I was perhaps three or four years old, and I had no way of knowing the circumstance that placed me on it. It was a part of a county fair perhaps, or a travelling carnival. No doubt the contraption was very small, not a grand, glittering European carousel, but just a dusty thing trucked in and parked by the side of a two-lane southern highway. That ride was as clear in my mind as if it happened this morning.
The horse was alive. I could close my eyes and smell his warm horsey smell, hear the creak of leather, feel the thump of his hooves as he stirred and danced beneath me. I looked down and saw my small hands twined in his mane. I held on for dear life as he bolted and carried me away across dirt tracks and green, green grass. The wind in my face forced tears from my eyes.
Most of all, I remembered my father. The world rushed past, and he was standing beneath some trees, holding a camera and waving to me. He was a young man, slim and dark-haired, and he was all by himself. It was perhaps my greatest sadness that I couldn’t wave back at him. I was too small, and the horse was too big. I was afraid to take my hand from the great neck, terrified that the air currents would pluck me off and I would fall.
I wished that I had waved to him, even now. I wished that I was braver.
Though I had stood with a cold wind blowing grit into the first of my gray hairs and watched a silver hearse carry him off, I was still that tiny boy, and my father was still looking at me from under the trees, holding his camera, waving and waving.
Cobb County, Georgia, Tuesday, July 2, 1946:
The boy reached into his pocket and checked for his single nickel. It was still there, along with a rabbit’s foot, dyed green, on a small chain. He rubbed its tiny claws across his fingertips, unaware that he was doing it as he walked on the edge of the dirt and gravel road.
It was hot. The trees on the verge, hung with Spanish moss, gave him the illusion of shade, though they kept their darkness to themselves and shared none of it with the roadway. An old pickup, colored a dusty shade that had once been blue, slowed as it drew abreast of him, but he didn’t look up. It ground its gears, a metallic ratcheting sound, and left him behind.
The general store came slowly into his view, weathered gray wood with a roof that sloped into a large veranda across the whole front of it. A nearly-new station wagon was parked by the steps, beside a low-slung black Ford Deluxe whose chrome V8 emblem shone from beneath a layer of dirt.
It was dark inside. Overhead, two large fans mixed the stifling air, which smelled vaguely spicy. Bare light bulbs struggled with the dimness; after the brightness of the day outside he was nearly blind, and had to wait for his eyes to adjust.
A pallid young woman stood behind the counter. The boy knew that she and her husband had taken over the store from the old couple who had owned it before them. The old man could generally be depended on to slip a free sweet to young patrons, but the new people never seemed even to smile. The store smelled the same as it always had, but now it was different. He saw the young husband, in short white sleeves, standing in the rear of the store and talking to another man.
“Grape Nehi, please, ma’am?”
She turned and bent. He heard clinking as she stirred the bottles in a metal cooler filled with ice.“Got none,” she said, straightening. “Orange, RC, and ginger.”
The boy hesitated. He had imagined the cold purple fragrance the whole long hot walk here.
A husky young man back in the dim wooden aisles eyed him suspiciously and then returned to his conversation.
“Orange please,” the boy said.
The woman pulled out a clear bottle and paused with a church key in her hand. “Five cents.”
The boy put his nickel on the counter. She opened the bottle and pushed it across to him. He went back out into the hot sunlight and took the first small sip. Bubbles stung his nose, and he was flooded with the icy, too-sweet essence of orange. When he lowered the bottle, he saw a girl about his age standing at the end of the covered porch. She was blonde and barefoot, wearing a soiled cotton dress.
“I know you,” she said. “I seen you at the school. I’m one grade ahead of you.”
He didn’t respond.
“How old are you anyway?” she asked.
He told her that he was ten, and she sniffed dismissively, allowing that she was eleven, almost twelve. She started to go and then turned back.
“Wanna see something? Come back here,” she said.
He reluctantly followed her around to the rear of the store. The girl unsettled him, but he was well brought-up, and, so trapped by his courtesy, he followed. She was unkempt and a little bit wild. Although his parents had little money, they made him aware that they differed from their poor white neighbors in the matter of breeding.
The dooryard in back of the store was packed dirt. It was here that the coloreds knocked, cash in hand, and were served. The store did more custom at the rear than the front, but its best clients were not permitted inside. In the midday heat, there was no traffic at the door. A black child about the same age as the two of them sat on the ground with his back against a hand pump, idly holding his pale palm under the drips from its spout. He wore denim overalls with the knees torn out. A yellow dog sat beside him, worn out from the heat.
“What d’you want to show me?” the white boy asked, a little bit impatient.
She turned herself to him and made a show of closing her eyes. “I like you,” she said. “You can kiss me if you want to.”
The boy was thrilled. This was a bad girl. He thought about it. “No, I don’t guess I will,” he finally said. “I don’t kiss girls.”
Her eyes flew open. “You crummy little creep,” she shouted. “I ought to tell on you for trying.”
He took a few steps back, and she turned to the Negro boy. “You!” she called, and gestured imperiously. “Come here!”
The black child hesitated and then got to his feet, clearly unwilling. He shuffled over to where she stood. He kept his eyes down. When he was close enough, she grabbed his chin and kissed him hard on the mouth, an exaggerated smack.
The back door flew open and banged off the wall with a sound like a gunshot. The shop owner cleared the three steps and grabbed his daughter roughly by the arm. The Negro boy was already fifty yards away, his yellow dog running at his heels.
“Wanda! You dirty little bitch!” the man screamed, spit flying. “What the God-damned hell are you doing? Did I just see you kiss a nigger?” He shook her violently, and she shrieked in fear and pain. The man caught sight of the white boy and stopped, staring at him.
“Oh God,” he said. “Who’re you? Get over here!”
The boy dropped his bottle of soda pop in the dirt and ran.
Another warm season was beginning. I hammered home steel retaining pins that held the dock to a natural rock pier jutting out from my island. When all of the anchors were seated securely, I straightened and felt the muscles in my back protest.
“Getting old, Bill,” I said. “I’m aching.”
My friend and business partner stood watching me. We restored small boats together in the off-season. I stayed at his marina at the other end of the lake during the winter months, when ice made the island inaccessible.
“Wait. Just wait. You’ll be my age in about twenty years,” he said. “If I’m still around, you can tell me about it then.”
He paused, looking at me intently. “You’re not staying out here tonight, are you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Lots to do, getting this place back in shape after the winter.”
“Really? Better not have an accident, Mike. This end of the lake’s awful deserted still.”
“I’ll be fine, Bill.”
“You haven’t been out in these woods long enough,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve told you before. Hollow Lake’s got a mean streak.”
“I’ve heard the stories.” I needed to change the subject. “Won’t be lonely for long,” I said. “Couple weeks, the early birds will be opening up summer cottages, and you’ll be getting boats back in the water. Need help this year?”
“I hired on a high school kid from town for the heavy stuff, but if you want to take a turn on the forklift now and then, that’d suit me.”
I nodded. My divorce had left me with some money and no burning desire to spend it. I worked on old boats because it was interesting, and because I sometimes needed the human contact I got at the marina.
“I’ve gotta get back,” Bill said. “Diane’s thinking I’m off somewhere smoking cigarettes by now.”
I laughed. “You do smoke cigarettes every time you’re out of her sight. She’s right. You ought to be ashamed.”
“Oh, bullshit,” he said. “The two of you make me crazy.”
We stood in companionable silence for a moment. The sun was nearly balmy, but every now and then a cold spring breeze from across the lake blew away the warmth.
“You’re sure about staying out here?” he asked again.
He looked up at my hundred-year-old cabin, tucked in among the jack pines that towered over it, and shook his head. “You and the ghosts.”
“It’s fine, Bill,” I said. “There are ghosts everywhere.”
He waved over his shoulder as he headed for his boat. I watched him as he reversed away from the dock. He completed a slow sweeping turn away from the island, and then the boat hunkered down in the rear and kicked water out behind itself, roaring out into the reach, headed for civilization.
The phone startled me. It vibrated in the front pocket of my jeans like something alive. I pulled it out and peered at the display in the red shimmer of the spring sunset, cupping my hand to cut the glare. It was Angela.
“Mike? Where are you? I’ve been trying to get you for almost two hours.”
I hadn’t heard my ex-wife’s voice in months, but as always the effect on me was immediate. I was never sure when I spoke with her if I yearned for an ending, or a beginning that had never happened. I could feel the weight of her on the other end of the connection–cool, blonde, and blue.
“I’m back on the island,” I said. “You know there’s almost no reception out here. Sorry.” I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for.
“I can’t imagine how you can set foot on that place again,” she said. “Anyway, I’m calling because…it’s your dad, Mike. I just got a call from him. We were on the phone almost an hour. He isn’t doing well.”
“He hasn’t done well in years. What’s the problem now?”
“I haven’t phoned him in a few weeks,” she said. “I feel bad. He called me because he needed to talk to family, which I guess I still am, in his mind. God knows you aren’t.”
“Easy, Ang,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but he doesn’t sound good. He wants to fly up here for a visit.”
I was stunned. “Put him off,” I said. “I’ll give him a call. Maybe I’ll fly down this summer and visit him.”
“Too late, Mike. He’s coming. He says he has to come.”
“Has to,” I repeated, shaking my head. “Terrific.”
I looked out at the lake. The water had an amber tint, residue from the spring melt. The opposite shore had dressed itself in green, but it was still easy to imagine the ice and snow that had covered it until a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure how to handle this.
“He hasn’t left Atlanta in years,” I said. “You need a passport now to get into Canada. Do you think he even has one? He can’t come up here if he doesn’t.”
“He’s an old man. They’ll accommodate him.”
“He’s really not that old,” I said. “He’s what…hardly even seventy. Seventy-something.”
“Seventy four,” she said.
I had never been close to my father. He was bitter and silent, even in my earliest memory of him. Since we had lost our daughter a year and a half before, Angela had gravitated toward the old man at the same time that I drifted away from both of them. Perhaps she found in him a sense of familial comfort that was lacking in me. She had flown from her home in Toronto to see him in Atlanta several times and spoke to him on the telephone regularly. I hadn’t seen or talked to him in over a year.
“Well, I guess it’s good he’s coming to visit you,” I said.
“Me? He’s not coming to visit me. He wants to see you. He needs to talk to you.”
I was dumbfounded. “What the hell could he possibly want to talk to me about?”
“Don’t snap at me, Mike,” she said quietly, her voice tense. “I’m telling you what he told me. I’ll pick him up at the airport and get him to you. Maybe he’ll stay with me for a day or two before I drive him up north.”
“I don’t really want a house guest right now, Angela.”
“You’ll probably have to meet us in Huntsville. I don’t want to go to the lake. I’ll call you when he’s here, assuming you’ll answer your phone.”
We hung up, and I stood and looked at the planks beneath my feet. The wood was raw and slippery. The lake beneath me was still, and I could see the smooth rock bottom sloping down into the deep. The freezing water looked warm.
I stayed that way for a long time. Finally, I sighed and went back up through the trees to the cabin. After months away, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable here. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in my own skin either.
Problem was, I had to be somewhere.
© 2016 by Bob Bickford
Author, Peggy Blair:
“Bickford seamlessly weaves the past and the present. A ripping good mystery.” ~ Peggy Blair, author of Hungry Ghosts
Author, Diana Rubino:
“Reads like a true-life memoir…one kiss, so many shattered lives.” ~ Diana Rubino, author of From Here to Fourteenth Street