A Parliament of Crows
by Alan M. Clark
Genre: Southern Gothic Crime, Horror
In A Parliament of Crows, the three Mortlow sisters are prominent American educators of the nineteenth century, considered authorities in teaching social graces to young women. They also pursue a career of fraud and murder. Their loyalty to one another and their need to keep their secrets is a bond that tightens with each crime, forcing them closer together and isolating them from the outside world. Their ever tightening triangle suffers from madness, religious zealotry and a sense of duty warped by trauma they experienced as teenagers in Georgia during Sherman’s March to the Sea. As their crimes come back to haunt them and a long history of resentments toward each other boils to the surface, their bond of loyalty begins to fray. Will duty to family hold or will they turn on each other like ravening crows?
Chapter 1: Vertiline—Loss of Life
Newark, New Jersey 1908
The shame of Vertiline’s incarceration had abated little in the eighteen months since her arrest. Believing herself nearly helpless against the forces controlling her fate, she expressed the slight power that remained to her in a simple reminder spoken aloud each morning while sitting on the bunk in her jail cell: “After what they did during the war, they have no right to judge us. Maintain a sense of personal dignity, for you are useless to your sisters without it.”
The state of New Jersey had indicted jointly Miss Vertiline Mortlow, sixty-one years of age, and her fifty-nine-year-old twin sisters, Mrs. Mary Mortlow Sneed, and Mrs. Carolee Mortlow Marshall. They were charged them with insurance fraud and the murder of Carolee’s daughter, Orphia Marshall Sneed. The young woman had been found dead in the bathtub of the sisters’ East Orange apartment, lying in a few inches of cold water, her head below the faucet, and her feet hanging over the back of the tub. Although suspicious, her death was at first seen as suicide. When Vertiline and her sisters tried to collect on several insurance policies they had taken out on Orphia, the police began an investigation and the sisters were arrested.
In the long delay before the trial, during which the sisters were kept in separate jail cells, the twins had perhaps suffered the most. Based on what her attorney said of his visits with them, Vertiline feared that Mary intentionally starved herself and that Carolee had gone mad from the isolation.
As the time drew near for the sisters to appear in court, Vertiline felt an unaccountable excitement despite her dread. After endless days of boredom spent in her lonely cell, she anticipated that the trial would provide intellectual and emotional stimulation. She hated herself for looking forward to the event.
On the first day of trial—the first time she’d seen the twins in over a month—while riding in the police van to the courthouse, Vertiline tried to make eye contact with her sisters. Carolee’s eyes darted about warily. When spoken to, she appeared startled, even frightened at times. Mary, her eyes downcast, was emaciated and uncommunicative. She flinched and cringed whenever Carolee became agitated.
“Are you well?” Vertiline asked them several times in different ways and with increasing urgency. Their answers held little information.
As the trial commenced in the courtroom with the prosecution presenting its case, Vertiline struggled to put her fears aside and look for ways to aid in her own defense. Torn between the urgency of concern for her sisters, and the need to maintain awareness of the proceedings, her head ached, her heart beat uncomfortably in her chest, and she struggled to take deep breaths.
In defense of her own sanity, her mind turned briefly to pleasant recollection.
Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. His illustrations have appeared in books of fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, young adult fiction and children’s books. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released 42 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson.