When Blake Nelson’s body is found in the desert, the police know they need to speak to his wife first. The problem? He has three.
Rachel, Tina, and Emily are all married to Blake Nelson, a member of the Latter-Day Saints, and a practicing polygamist. They've built a home together, even if the tension between the three very different women sometimes becomes too much to handle. Police immediately suspect one of the three is to blame.
But with a wife fresh out of rehab, another with a suspicious connection to a notorious cult, and the possibility that there's one more secret wife, these widows are hard to pin down. Black Widows is a domestic thriller told from the perspective of Blake's three wives as each begins to distrust the other... and suspect that the killer is among their ranks.
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Rachel, First Wife
Lord forgive me, I lied to a policeman today. I told him Blake had never raised a hand to me. I’d like to say I was protecting his memory, but that would be another lie. The truth is, I simply couldn’t stand another judgment from an outsider about our way of life.
I was at the ranch when the officers came. I’d laid out my jars, neat and clean, and was filling them with cut salted potatoes. We had a big rain this year and more crop than average, so there was plenty to can.
The routine always did soothe me. It reminds me of being a little girl canning food for winter, my brothers and sisters all barefoot in the kitchen. I was humming a little tune, wiping the rims, screwing on the lids. My pantry had grown steadily full with brightly colored vegetables and corned beef. Never could get the meat to look pretty, but it sure tastes good.
I guess the Nelson ranch looks plain to city folk. It’s a small, old farm of a few acres that held a handful of cattle in the fifties. Blake fitted out the dilapidated farmhouse with a stove and basic plumbing five years back. Nothing out here for one hundred miles but the desert and some big, old turkey vultures. To me, it’s a paradise on earth.
The weather was still warm for fall, so all the doors were wide open. I could already feel the beginning of change in the air. That sudden slip in heat that brings the storms and sends fat, white clouds scudding into the deep desert sky. I’d closed my eyes, letting the sun beat down on my face through the little kitchen window. When I opened them again, a pack of police was standing at the farmhouse door.
I looked up, knife in hand. I must have looked quite the picture to those city officers, in a shapeless prairie dress with long bat-wing- shouldered sleeves, buttoned neck to ankle, my blond hair braided down my back. I wiped the white potato starch from the blade. Set it down.
“Which Mrs. Nelson do you want, sir?” I looked at them each in turn.
A few of them were openly taking in the ranch. Outside is a little chaotic, with our decrepit outbuildings, food storehouse, and half- finished vegetable beds. Inside it’s neat and cozy, with a great many hand-crocheted items. There’s a little couch, with two pillows I made myself, with “Home Is Where the Heart Is” and “God Is Love” in big, bright colors. Our kitchen is a basic counter and sink. There’s a shelf with a little gas stove for when we heat our food and some food-preserving equipment that Blake bought me for our second wedding anniversary.
To the back is the second-story loft, where we’ve put our beds. Two singles for two wives. A master for Blake and whomever is favored that night.
One of the officers picked up a family portrait. A photograph taken shortly after Blake married Tina. The three of us stand behind our husband. Me, the oldest, my blond hair blow-dried for the occasion, pink lipstick, a flowery blouse that skims my broad hips. Emily, slender, looking even younger than her nineteen years, green eyes wide like a deer in the headlights, wispy, pale hair curled for the photo. Then Tina with her cat-that-got-the-cream smile. Straight black hair, tight dress showing cleavage, heavy makeup.
A police officer at the back pushed through at that point. A lady officer in tight pants. She had that wholesome outdoorsy look some Salt Lake City gals get, if they’re not the religious type and spend their weekends doing sports and whatnot. Shiny brunette ponytail. Very striking light-brown eyes. Right away, I knew she wasn’t in the Church.
“I’m Officer Brewer,” said the lady officer. She extended a tanned hand.
I shook it. She had a warm, firm grip.
“Are you telling us that there’s more than one Mrs. Nelson here?” she asked.
“Um. No, ma’am.” For some reason, I glanced at the knife.
Brewer narrowed her eyes slightly, as if she’d caught me in a lie.
“I mean,” I continued, “the others aren’t here right now.”
She cleared her throat. “Are you Mrs. Rachel Nelson, married to Blake Nelson?”
“Yes, ma’am, six years.” I smiled. “It was our wedding anniversary yesterday, as a matter of fact.”
This seemed to confuse her. She glanced at the wedding picture.
“You folk are Mormons?” she asked.
“We prefer the term Latter-Day Saints,” I agreed tightly. “May I ask what your business is here?”
“Mrs. Nelson,” she said, taking a breath, “I’m afraid we have some bad news regarding your husband.”
It wasn’t the words but her tone that rushed up to meet me like a slap.
“Is he under arrest?” I felt my face grow hot. She shook her head. “No.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“It’s better if you sit down.”
I gotta hand it to her. The Wicked Witch of the West came into her own that morning. Rachel was the only one of us with the guts to go inside the morgue and identify Blake. You see that shit on the police shows. TV dramas. Relatives all cryin’ and sayin’, “That’s it, that’s him.” You never see anyone sayin’, “I can’t do it.”
The cops pulled me in as I was about to get my first fix in a year and a half. Like a junkie homing pigeon I’d found my way to Rio Grande, Salt Lake City’s two-block drug district. Which is actually pretty funny to someone like me from Vegas. Where I grew up, the whole damn town is dedicated to this shit. An’ here everyone gets all uptight about a couple a’ roads with some hobos.
Anyway, when the cops took me in, I assumed they were bustin’ us all for bigamy. So we get to the station. To one of the rooms they take you to before you’re officially in trouble. Where they’re being all nicey-nice and nothing’s on tape.
So here I am in this Salt Lake City police department, thinkin’ not much has changed, apart from the charge. Which is some joke, right? In Vegas I got busted for soliciting. Here they’re bustin’ me for being married.
Then this good-looking woman comes in. Tall, well put together. She’s got brown hair, in a plain ponytail but very glossy, like her body can’t help but tell everyone about her good health. Hardly any makeup, mountain-hiker suntan, sorta amber eyes. Golden, almost.
She reminded me of the tourist pictures Blake used to send me. Clean-living people in sportswear, advertising Utah’s outdoor lifestyle—snowboard in winter, mountain bike in summer.
She introduces herself as Officer Brewer. I don’t like women like her as a rule. They think they understand what it’s like to grow up poor, but they don’t.
“You’re Mrs. Tina Nelson?”
I shake my head. “I’m Tina Keidis.” I give her a mean glare so she knows she can’t fool me into sayin’ I was Blake’s wife, ’cause that’s against the law. I lean back in my seat. “You cops get these tables and plastic chairs wholesale?” I ask. “They got the same ones in Vegas.”
I’m making a point. I’ve been downtown a million times, so there’s no sense tryin’ to intimidate me.
“Mrs. Nelson,” a cop says. “A body has been found out in the desert. We believe it to be your husband.”
That shuts me up.
That’s when Brewer tells me what went down. How some soul- searching city type was driving out in the middle a’ nowhere and saw vultures circling near the river where Blake liked to fish. Then she explains about the body. How it could be suspicious. Despite how it appeared, Blake sustained injuries they’re not certain he could have done to himself.
When she tells me the details, I feel real sorry for the guy who found him.
“I hear the officers picked you up in Rio Grande.” Brewer adds, “You don’t see many Mormons on that block. You get lost?”
I mumble some shit about not knowing the city well. But they’re not stupid. Most likely they’ve already pulled my inch-thick record from Nevada.
The truth? After the night of the wedding anniversary...I just cracked, I guess. Went downtown looking for trouble. Blake warned me it would be hard. Sharing him with other women. But I don’t think he really thought it through. The other two, they were raised to it. Brought up godly, to this man-is-head-of-household stuff. To me it’s new. I never even had a household. I was raised halfway between foster care and my mom if she was in town.
So I can ask Lord Jesus for strength and God for forgiveness, but every day at the ranch felt like someone was treading on my heart. I swear I could actually feel it, this bruised, pulpy mess in my chest.
Rachel told me it gets easier, but I don’t believe she had that kind of love in the first place. Her and Blake were college sweethearts. Two wholesome Mormon kids, doing the right thing. She likes to do what’s expected of her. And to win. She hides that part. But Mrs. Mormon Bed-Corners has a competitive streak a mile wide.
That’s why she allowed her husband to take more wives, I guess. It wasn’t enough for her to be a good Mormon. She had to be the best.
So Rachel doesn’t understand how it was for me and Blakey. How he used to look out for me in the rehab center. Try and save my soul. We’d joke about it, in actual fact. I’d tease him. What’s a handsome young guy doing with a load of meth heads? That kinda thing. He told me he’d never completed his mission and wanted to make amends by volunteering at rehab centers. I ripped him on that, too, how us recovering addicts were low-rent converts, so desperate for a new life we’d believe anything. He laughed at that and said I wasn’t all wrong. We laughed a lot, me and him.
The plain truth is, Blake saved me in every sense. And that first time we danced, at that lame rehab Christmas party, my head against his warm chest, Blake had whispered into my ear that he never felt about anyone the way he felt about me.
I’d cling to that in the darker times, when I was sleeping alone, and Blake was with another wife.
Truth is, the worst time was at sunset, when Rachel started prepar- ing one of her god-awful Mormon canned dinners. The atmosphere sorta...smoldered. I swear that double bed had an electric current. You’d see Rachel looking everywhere but at the hayloft. Emily would go even more quiet than usual. Me, I’d get antsy. Twitchy. Say mean things. Same as when I was high all the time and couldn’t get my fix.
Sunset was always when we wives had our worst fights. The garden- ing and the cleaning and the other chores had been done. There wasn’t much lighting in the ranch, no TV besides a little portable that Emily swore blind she never watched, but somehow ran down the batteries on daily. Blake liked us to read the Bible together, but he wasn’t always home. So I suppose we should have all seen it coming. The anniversary.
Blake had picked me three nights in a row. Things were simmering. I have this image of us three wives sitting on the couch, waiting to see who would be asked. Rachel with this weird Mona Lisa smile, tryin’ to seem like she didn’t care. Me doin’ that thing I learned on the streets where you make it look like you’re thinkin’ of somethin’ real dirty. Wispy little Emily, terrified.
Funny, now I think of it, the more frightened Emily seemed, the more often she got chose.
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