Melanie and Lady Shelley
Louisiana Bayou; Saturday, 6:02 a.m.
A thick, slate fog drifted at the base of the looming cypress trees, creating an impenetrable curtain around the cabin. Water lapped against the wooden support pylons, the soft sound muffled in the gloom of the morning. Not even the rising sun successfully penetrated its layers.
A sound parted the wall of silence, becoming louder as it neared. An oar pushed through the water, making a delicate whoosh-drip as it dipped in and out in a mesmerizing rhythm.
No one stirred in the cabin. The lone resident was not expecting company and was still in bed, curled under her great-grandmother's quilt and enjoying dreams of a lover now long gone.
The boat cut its way through the fog, coming into view of the cabin. Like many of the cabins on the Homestead, the front half was built on a stretch of solid ground near the main road. The back porch stretched out into the swamp and was only accessible from the water.
All the better for the three men in the boat.
Once in sight, the paddling ceased, letting their momentum take the boat to the porch. The tallest of the three climbed out first and slipped a loop around a post, securing their craft. With careful, muffled steps, the three men entered the cabin through the back door.
A single gunshot rang out. There was no scream.
Only the muffled lapping of the water against the moored boat and rotting pylons.
Winnsboro, Louisiana; 9:45 a.m.
Fifteen minutes had passed since the taxi pulled up in front of the green townhouse. The engine continued to idle, the cabby apparently secure in the fact that his meter was still running. His passenger, Mary Carter, watched the house with the petrified eyes of a condemned prisoner. Her red hair was chin length, framing her thin, pale face and making her look much younger than her twenty-four years.
A few more minutes passed, but Mary had not budged. The cabby twisted around to face her, his pudgy face flirting with annoyance.
"Look, lady," he said. "If it's so hard, maybe it's not worth going in."
Mary glanced at him sharply, her green eyes flashing. But she knew he was right. "Wait here," she said. "I'll only be a few minutes, I'm sure."
Her voice was soft and trembled slightly as she spoke. There was a hint of an accent that had been purposefully forgotten.
Gathering her courage, Mary opened the door and climbed out. She stood on the curb and smoothed the skirt of her Salvation Army dress. Mary looked back at the cab. The bag on the back seat held all of her worldly possessions. But she knew she could trust the cabby not to drive away with it.
Besides, she owed him a rather large sum of money for the cab ride from Alexandria.
Mary walked up the stone path with small, tentative steps. At any minute she expected a lawyer to come barging out of the house and wave a restraining order in her face. But Rob wouldn't do that; he wasn't the type. She stopped at the edge of the porch, the hair on the back of her neck standing up. Someone was watching her. She thought it may be the cabby, but knew it was someone in the house.
The front door swung open, startling Mary into taking a step backward. The heel of her shoe missed the path and sank into the grass, throwing her off balance. When she finally steadied herself, a tall figure loomed in the doorway.
Rob Peterson leaned against the frame, muscled arms crossed over a thin chest. His weathered face had aged in the last three years, and he seemed a decade older than thirty. His expression was blank, but his posture defensive. Mary tried to smile, but only managed a weak grimace.
"What do you want?" Rob asked.
Mary opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
"It's not good for Beth to see you," Rob said, his voice as blank as his face. "It's too confusing right now."
"I just want to look at her," Mary stammered. "I'm going home and..."
How could she explain it to him? Something was waiting for her at home; she knew that deep in her heart. She didn't know what, but every inner sense told Mary to see her daughter once more.
"Mary, you can't--"
"Rob, please," Mary said, her voice urgent and thick with tears. "Just for a moment. She doesn't have to see me; I just want to look at her. Please, she's all I have."
"All you had." A thin veil of ice coated each word Rob spoke.
Mary recoiled as if slapped. Rob watched her, but was unable to latch onto the anger bubbling just below the surface.
"You can see her for a minute," Rob said. "She's playing out back. You can look through the window."
"You left her alone?" Mary asked sharply.
"I hired a part-time nanny," Rob said. "She helps out while I'm in the office."
Mary fixed Rob with desperate eyes. "Is she good to Beth?"
Rob let his frown melt into a genuine smile. "Ruth is an angel with Beth."
Mary yanked her shoe from the lawn and stepped onto the porch. Rob stepped aside and let Mary walk inside. Each room branching from the foyer was child-proofed and littered with toys. They went into the kitchen at the back of the house; the window over the sink looked into the backyard. Mary noticed dozens of drawings taped to the refrigerator and felt an ache in her heart for all the pictures Beth had never drawn her.
"She's out there," Rob said, pointing out the window.
Mary stood by the sink and peeked outside into the small, fenced backyard. A five-year old girl sat in a swing, her blank stare fixed on her shoes. Bright red hair fell forward into her eyes. A middle-aged woman who could only be Ruth stood behind the swing, pushing it very lightly.
Beth didn't notice the swing's movement. Mary knew her daughter's autism probably prevented her from knowing she was even outside. No matter what any doctor said, Mary always blamed herself for Beth. Rob did, too.
Mary drank her in with her eyes, memorizing the small scabs on Beth's knees, the polka dots on her dress. She watched the way her hair blew back and forth with the swing's motion. But Mary could not see her face. Just one look...
With no warning, Beth's head snapped up. Her bright green eyes seemed to stare through the window and straight into Mary's. Beth's cheeks were rosy and her little nose was upturned slightly -- she looked more like her father than like Mary, and Mary was grateful for that. Beth's eyes never blinked, she just stared.
As suddenly as she looked up, Beth looked back down at her shoes. Her beautiful face was once again hidden from view.
"You've seen her," Rob said flatly. "Will you go?"
A lump rose in Mary's throat and she swallowed hard. "Yes, I'll go."
Rob nodded. Mary didn't look back as Rob led her to the front door. She did not thank him, nor did she wait for him to say anything else. Her cab was waiting and she had a train to catch. Only once she was on the train would Mary allow herself to cry.
In the backyard, Ruth Gerber gently pushed the swing Beth sat in, still as a statue. She was surprised when the child looked up for a brief moment. It was as if she'd heard something and had to investigate.
Ruth checked her watch. It was almost time for Beth's morning snack. Ruth stopped pushing and walked around in front of Beth. She squatted in front of her charge. Ruth was mildly surprised when she realized Beth was mumbling something. It was a sound all jumbled together and too soft to hear.
She thought nothing of it as she took Beth inside. But if Ruth had taken the time to really listen, she would have heard the two letters Beth repeated. They would have sounded like, "Mamamamamama...."
Louisiana, 15 Miles South of Backstone; 1:17 p.m.
Jim pressed his forehead against the window, watching absently as his breath fogged up the glass. He couldn't help but smile as he listened to Blair tell Tooley about one of their interesting adventures of the past few days.
"It turns out these old guys were big-time robbers in their younger days," Blair said. "And they still went out to rob people, but they disguised themselves as young people pretending to be old. It was pretty wild."
"And you just happened in on it," Tooley said.
"Like always," Blair said. "The funniest part was how Jim figured out who they were."
Jim grinned as Blair continued the story. Blair's obvious amusement was contagious as Tooley laughed along with him when he delivered the punchline.
"How long you stayin' this time?" Tooley asked.
"Couple of days," Jim said. "We have to go back to New Orleans to clean up a few things. Thought we'd use our spare time productively."
"You folks sure picked a good time to come visitin' ag'n," Tooley said, tapping his thumbs against the steering wheel in a beat only he could hear.
"Why's that?" Jim asked.
"Strange stuff happenin' down in Backstone," Tooley replied. "Hearin' noises and seein' ghosts."
"Ghosts?" Blair repeated. He glanced at Jim, but Jim refused to meet his eye.
"Girl with flaming red hair," Tooley said. "Just a wisp of a body, but always the hair. Sure sounds to me like Merry, that's what I think. Always folks near the swamp what's been seein' her."
Jim could see Blair's mind racing with the possibilities. Although their last visit to Backstone had been over a year ago, the memories hadn't faded. Where Jim's eyes had seen a burnt out cabin, his mind remembered a warm bed and crackling fireplace. Even the snake bite scars had faded away completely, leaving no trace of Merry, the tasteless broth or the healing poultice.
"What is she doing when they see her?" Blair asked.
Tooley shrugged, navigating the cab around a rut in the road. "Usually just starin', sometimes pointin', but no one ever knows what at. Damn fools prolly just can't see it."
"Can't see it?" Blair repeated. He leaned forward in his seat; Tooley had his full attention. "You mean they choose not to?"
"Yep. Y'see, most folks 'round here don't wanna see ghosts. Don't believe in the black magics. But the folks that do are usually so scared by it, they don't see what they need to see."
"So if someone chose to see her," Blair said. "Chose to understand, they could see what she wants them to see."
"Prolly." Tooley looked at him in the rearview mirror. "Why? You plan on ghost huntin' while yer here?"
"No," Jim said. "This is just a visit, not a research project."
Tooley laughed. "We'll see."
Backstone, LA; 1:28 p.m.
A mosquito buzzed by Sheriff Harry Gabelle's nose, threatening to land. Gabelle watched it carefully, his eyes crossing and uncrossing several times as he waited for the bloodsucker to make a move. The skeeter finally backed off and landed on his left hand. Biding his time, Gabelle swung out with his right hand and smashed the mosquito flat.
"Gotcha," Gabelle said. He wiped the corpse on his pants.
"How many's that today?" Mike Donnelly asked, his voice drifting onto the porch through the open office door.
"Seven, I think," Gabelle replied.
"Didn't you get twenty-six yesterday?"
Gabelle shrugged, even though his deputy couldn't see it. "It's only eleven-thirty. I got hours to squish some more. Damn disease carrying..."
He trailed off. A taxicab was trundling down the dirt road into town. Gabelle scratched his receding hairline. He could have sworn Blair's message said they were coming tomorrow. But days seemed to drift together in this sleepy town.
Gabelle pulled himself up from the stoop, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun. As the cab came closer, a slow grin spread over his face.
"Mike!" he bellowed. "We got company."
Donnelly appeared in the doorway, his hand resting on his holstered pistol. Gabelle sighed softly. It had been a year since he was shot by MacGeorge's men, but Donnelly still carried that baggage around with him. The once exuberant young man was now more cautious, almost suspicious.
"The good kind of company," Gabelle amended.
Backstone hadn't changed an iota since last year. It was the kind of town that was expected to remain the same year after year, but you always hoped would change. Perhaps the road was more rutted, or the paint on the sheriff's office had flaked off more around the roof, but those things weren't noticed or noted.
Blair peered out the cab's window as they rolled into town. Two young children in cut-offs ran beside the cab for a few yards, then disappeared into an alley between the Grocery and miniature Post Office.
Tooley laughed. "I used to spend my days like that," he said. "Chasing my pals and darin' each other to tease baby crocs. Kid lost a finger doin' that once, long time ago."
"You ever get bitten?" Blair asked.
"Not by a croc," Tooley said. He stopped the cab in front of the sheriff's office, sending up a cloud of dry dirt. "But damn near died from snakebite twice. Here's some good advice boys: if it looks like a tree branch, it's prolly not."
Blair chuckled. "I'll remember that," he said as he opened the cab door.
A blast of humid air greeted him, air that smelled faintly of flowers and moss. Gabelle stood at the top step, grinning down at him. The sheriff laughed heartily when Blair and Jim climbed out of the cab, his generous belly shaking a bit as he did.
"Good to see you boys," Gabelle said. He trundled down the steps and reached out to shake Jim's hand firmly. "How was the conference?"
Jim and Blair exchanged rueful glances. Gabelle shook his head as he walked over to Blair.
"That good, I take it?" Gabelle said, slapping the younger man on the back.
"Worse," Jim said.
"Any good stories?" Gabelle asked.
Before Jim could say no, Blair cut in. "Dozens. The gods hate us, it seems."
"Don't worry," Gabelle said. "Nothing big's happened around here since... well, since the last time you two visited. Should be a quiet vacation for you."
Jim groaned. "I think you just jinxed us."
Gabelle laughed, glancing over his shoulder. Donnelly hung back in the office doorway, hands shoved deep in his pockets. His expression was quiet, neutral. Blair walked over to him while Jim and Tooley took their suitcases from the trunk.
"How's it going, Mike?" Blair asked.
Donnelly shrugged and Blair was amazed at how the young deputy had changed. Even the way he stood gave away Donnelly's apprehension, the suspicion that only came after twenty years of walking a beat. Donnelly had been a sheriff's deputy for less than four years.
"Looks like you took our advice," Donnelly said, "and kept your crazies out of Louisiana."
When Blair finally realized Donnelly was joking, he began to laugh. "And there have been a few nut cases, let me tell you," Blair replied.
Donnelly grinned. The ice was broken.
The suitcases had been stored in the back room for now. Jim, Blair and Gabelle sat on the porch with glasses of iced tea, enjoying the afternoon. Every now and again, someone from town walked by to chat with the sheriff. The slow pace of Backstone was something Jim was sure he could get used to.
Blair was in the middle of another tale of their exploits in New Orleans.
"They wanted to rob a charity function," Blair said. "But the idiot in charge got the hotels mixed up. Instead of holding up a bunch of rich people, they held up a room full of cops. It was a sight to see. A hundred police officers drawing their guns at the same time."
Gabelle howled with laughter. "Y'know, some folks really define the word 'dumb.'"
"Yeah, and they were all in New Orleans this week," Jim said.
"You didn't bring any with you, did you?" Gabelle asked with a wicked glint in his eye.
"Not a one," Blair replied. "If there are any crazies about, they are all yours."
In the distance, Jim heard the rumbling of a car engine. His eyes flickered toward the road into town. A few minutes later, a taxi trundled around the bend in the road, as if coming out of the swamp itself.
Next to him, Gabelle put his glass down with a loud clink. "Our day for visitors," he mumbled.
The taxi also caught Blair's attention. He stopped his story and, together, the three men watched the taxi make the same circle Tooley had, finally coming to a stop in front of the sheriff's office. Gabelle rose to his feet, followed by his Cascade visitors.
The passenger door of the cab opened and a young woman stepped out, her red hair glimmering in the sunlight.
Jim's heart skipped a beat when she looked up. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. The woman remained. Jim let his senses open. He heard her heart beating, her lungs breathing. He smelled her shampoo. She was real. But how could she be?
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Blair's hand, shaking him gently.
"Merry," Jim muttered.
Jim looked down at Blair, but Blair's eyes were now on the visitor. Jim looked at the young woman, who seemed equally intent on him. She studied Jim with curious eyes. The curiosity turned to slight recognition. Jim shivered.
Gabelle walked down the steps toward the cab. "Mary Carter," he said evenly. "Been a long time since you're around these parts."
Mary shifted her gaze from Jim to Gabelle and smiled. "I thought I was due for a visit," she said. "See the old house for a while."
"House is still there," Gabelle said.
Jim watched the exchange, his confusion growing. The young woman standing there was a carbon copy of the woman Jim remembered seeing in the swamp last year. The soft, lilting voice was the same. But she was dead. Had been dead. Jim shook his head, trying to clear his addled mind.
Mary once again glanced at Jim and Gabelle remembered they were not alone.
"These are some friends of mine," Gabelle said. "Detectives Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg of Cascade, Washington. Boys, this is Mary Carter, former resident of Backstone."
Mary flinched at the label. She took her bag from the cab and paid the cabby. The taxi peeled away in a cloud of dust.
"Your name is Merry?" Jim asked, somehow finding his voice.
"M-A-R-Y," she said. Her eyes were green. "I also came to ask about Pam Leary."
"What about her?" Gabelle asked.
"Have you seen her today?" Mary asked.
Gabelle shook his head. "I don't see Pam most days. Why? Voices tell you something different?" The last question was almost mocking.
Determination settled in Mary's eyes. "Something like that. Could you call her, at least?"
Gabelle frowned and shrugged his shoulders. "I suppose I can." He trudged up the stairs and into the office.
Mary looked at Jim once more. "You look like you've seen a ghost, Detective."
He had seen a ghost. And Jim believed he was looking at one now. But ghosts didn't have heartbeats or smell of wildflowers.
"I'm sorry," Blair cut in. "But I have to ask before Jim blows a gasket. Are you related to Merry Derkins?"
Mary didn't seem surprised by the question. "She was my aunt. I never knew her, but from your reaction, I must look just like her."
"Identical," Jim said.
"I thought you'd seen her," Mary said to Jim. "She helped you, didn't she?"
Jim hesitated. Even after Molly, the snakebites last year, and his own visions of Incacha, Jim was still a bit leery about the direction this conversation was going.
Gabelle walked back out on the porch, frowning. "No answer at her place."
Mary's eyes widened.
"She could be out of town," Gabelle said. "Shopping, visiting friends, any number of things. I left a message on the machine. Sounded like a damned fool doing it."
"Can't you send someone to check her house?" Jim asked.
Gabelle stared at Jim open-mouthed.
Jim held the stare steadily. "What's the harm?"
"Harm is I got people calling me at all hours," Gabelle said. "Saying they're seeing ghosts, or strange shadows watching them. Now I've got Backstone's most notorious head case telling me to track down a woman who's probably shopping up river for the day."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked." Mary gripped her bag tightly. "I should get home."
"Aw, hell," Gabelle said. "Look, I'll have Mike run out to her house and make sure she's not fallen off a ladder or something. Okay?"
Jim could tell Mary was hiding her relief over the sheriff's compromise. Gabelle walked back inside, shouting for Donnelly.
"You know something," Jim said to Mary. It was not a guess, but a fact. There was something about Mary that Jim trusted. He didn't know why, but was certain it had to do with the fact that she was related to Merry. Blair would say it was his sixth sense, but Jim preferred to think of it as detective's intuition.
"I believe something," Mary said. "There's a difference."
"What do you believe?" Jim asked.
"That Pam's hurt," Mary replied. "Maybe dead."
"Why do you think -- believe that?" Blair asked.
Mary looked down at her hands, studying her nails. They were short and ragged from years of nervous biting. Her skin was pale and Jim wondered when was the last time she'd seen the sun before today.
"I know the sheriff thinks I'm crazy," she said. "Actually, a lot of people think I'm crazy and maybe I am."
Gabelle and Donnelly walked out the front door, effectively stopping the conversation once again. Donnelly threw Mary an annoyed glare and stalked off to one of the two cruisers parked next to the building.
"I'll be heading home in a few hours," Gabelle said to Jim and Blair. "Feel free to wander around town until then." Gabelle cut his eyes at Mary, then went inside.
"I don't know if he thinks you're crazy," Blair said to Mary. "But he doesn't seem to like you very much."
"He shouldn't," Mary said. "He thinks I tried to kill a man."
"I'm sorry?" Jim stared at her blankly.
Mary glanced at the open office door. "Can we take a walk?"
Severn Pond, Backstone
Mary led them across the dusty Main Street, cutting through an alley between an ancient laundromat and the library. The well-trodden path ended at a wooden dock that extended fifteen feet into the pond. It was separated from the bayou itself, with no connecting tributaries or streams. The water was quiet and undisturbed, its surface a perfect reflection of the dock and surrounding trees.
"Why does the sheriff think you almost killed a man?" Jim asked.
He and Blair followed Mary to the end of the dock. She leaned against the wooden rail, staring at her reflection in the water.
"Because I did," Mary said. "You know, for all the superstitions about these swamps, people are actually very skeptical when it comes to the supernatural."
"I hear that," Blair muttered.
"Why did you try to kill someone?" Jim pressed.
"It's a long story," Mary said.
Jim crossed his arms, leaning back against the rail. "We've got time."
"My family owned a lot of land around here," Mary said. "My mother died when I was ten and my father began to sell it off or rent it out. After high school, I moved to Winnsboro, met a man and had a baby. After Beth was born, I started having these dreams. I would see people doing things, sometimes hurting other people. Then something I saw appeared in the news. I thought I was going crazy."
"So you told the authorities?" Jim asked.
"Not right away," Mary said. "I was too scared to. Then we found out Beth was autistic and that's all I could concentrate on. The dreams stopped. Four years ago, my dad died so we came back here for the funeral. That's when the dreams started again. I dreamed that someone broke into our house and killed Beth. That nightmare drove me insane. She slept in our bed; I never let her out of my sight. Rob wanted me to talk to someone about it, thought it was hormones and grief."
Mary stopped, playing with a strand of her hair. There was little emotion as she spoke, only the analytical tone of one describing a science project. "One afternoon Rob forgot to tell me an electrician was coming to rewire the back bedroom. I was taking a nap with Beth. When I saw him in the house I shot him with my father's hunting rifle. He survived, but the courts decided I was a danger to myself and others. They gave Beth to Rob and sent me to a psychiatric hospital. I was released last week."
Jim and Blair took a moment to absorb her story.
"So your vision was false?" Blair asked.
"No," she said. "Just early. Rob took Beth back to Winnsboro and installed a new security system in the house. Three weeks later, someone tried to break in. When the cops caught him, he had a gun. If Rob hadn't installed that system..." Mary's voice cracked.
"So then you what?" Jim asked. "Had a vision about Pam and had to come back to town?"
"The doctor tried to convince me the visions were illusions I created to deal with Beth's autism." Mary snorted. "For a while I actually believed him. But this vision was different. I never saw Pam, just her cabin. But my Aunt Merry was there, on the porch. She was crying. Then I heard a gunshot."
"And you've never seen Merry in one of your dreams before?" Blair asked.
"No," Mary said. "That's why I came."
"Sounds like you're not the only one seeing ghosts," Blair said.
"But now no one believes in what they see," Mary said. "My mother was like me. For a while she used to help people with her visions. Then after the fire, the townspeople started to talk. Now they think my whole family is nuts. You know they believe my grandfather killed Merry. But I know he didn't."
Jim quirked an eyebrow. "He didn't?"
Mary stared at Jim. "His daughters were his life. My mother was older, had married and moved on. He was overprotective, but he couldn't have killed her. I know he couldn't."
"Why haven't you tried to prove it?" Blair asked.
"Nobody wants to bring it up," she replied. "Almost thirty years is a long time ago."
Jim thought of Molly and how long she had waited for someone to set her free. The short hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Jim gazed around the perimeter of the pond, sure they were being watched.
"There you are!" Gabelle shouted.
The trio turned toward the end of the dock. Gabelle stood at the back of the alley, his hands on his hips. His eyes fixed directly on Mary.
"You may have been right," he said.
Leary Home, 5 Miles North; 2:12 p.m.
Gabelle drove everyone out to Pam's place, but only after some convincing. He didn't seem eager to have Mary along, as if her very presence was a hex. He said Donnelly had radioed in that Pam's house was empty. Her front door was unlocked, personal items had been rifled through and there was blood on the bedroom floor.
Mary rode in the back seat in silence, her eyes fixed firmly on the seat in front of her. No one in the car seemed eager to speak.
Donnelly stood on the porch as they pulled up. Gabelle parked behind the other cruiser and everyone climbed out. Mary hung back by the car, staring wide-eyed at the house as if it might awaken and swallow her whole. Jim and Blair followed the sheriff up onto the porch.
"There's no sign of Pam," Donnelly said as he led them indoors. "Her car's gone, but her purse is still here."
"Could have left in a big hurry," Gabelle said. He wandered through the disheveled living room to the kitchen. It was neat as a pin, every dish put away and crumb wiped up.
Jim stared around the living room. A small desk in the corner had been rifled through, papers scattered around it. Blair squatted down to check it out.
"Looks like bills," Blair said, picking up one of the papers. "Some legal stuff. Credit card reports. You getting anything?"
Jim opened up his sense of smell, letting the odors drift into his nostrils. He smelled Blair's shampoo, Donnelly's aftershave, Gabelle's perspiration. Onion and tomato from the kitchen. There was another scent, something he couldn't identify.
"This way," Jim said.
He entered a short hallway that led back to the bedroom. The door was halfway open, but the smell was concentrated in that room. He could also smell the blood Donnelly had mentioned. Jim pushed the door open.
The bed was made, if a little haphazardly. The closet doors were open. The clothes appeared undisturbed, but a pile of sheets sat at an odd angle, threatening to spill over.
"Blood's over here," Blair said.
Jim turned. Blair pointed to a spot by the bathroom door. A smudge of scarlet colored the cream carpeting, surrounded by a splattering of darker drops. Jim walked over and squatted. The blood was fairly fresh, probably from the last five hours or so. But the scent was too strong for it to be coming from that small spot.
"Something's out of place," Jim said as he stood back up.
He walked back to the bed. The strange odor was coming from here. It reminded Jim of men's cologne, but nothing he'd ever smelled before. Jim bent down and sniffed the quilt. That was it; someone had handled the bed sheets. Jim pulled the quilt back, then the top sheet. He could smell blood, too. He yanked up the bottom sheet.
The center of the mattress pad was stained dark red. It was fairly dry, which explained why it hadn't soaked through the sheets.
"What the hell?" Gabelle said from the bedroom doorway. Donnelly stood at his shoulder.
"Looks like you've got a murder," Jim said.
As ridiculous as it seemed, Blair couldn't help but feel a bit responsible. In the last twenty years, nothing big had happened in Backstone until he and Jim started coming around. It was as if Cascade's penchant for trouble just followed them wherever they went.
Gabelle had called in help from the Louisiana State Police. A murder was too much for a sheriff and his single deputy. While Gabelle had years of experience of big city policing, Donnelly had none.
While they waited for reinforcements, Blair found Mary sitting on the back porch of the house, her feet swinging above the swamp. She hadn't spoken in almost half an hour.
"You okay?" Blair asked.
Mary shook her head no. She turned to look at him. "That's where she stood in my vision," she said.
Blair took an automatic step to the left, then laughed at himself. He sat down next to Mary.
"Do you know why someone would want to hurt Pam?" he asked.
"No idea," Mary said. "I didn't know her well. Her late husband bought this parcel of land from my father six years ago. It was one of the first pieces he sold. Homestead land."
"That's what we called it," Mary said. "I still call the old house the Homestead. A lot of this land used to be part of it."
Blair looked out into the swamp, trying to judge where exactly they were in relation to the town. "Mary, how far away are we from the burnt-out cabin."
"Aunt Merry's old cabin?" Mary asked. She gazed out to the left, a bit to the south. "About seven miles that way. It's closer to the Homestead. Maybe two miles. I wonder..."
Mary shrugged and flicked a small stone into the water. "I wonder sometimes if Aunt Merry was like Mother and me; if she had the same visions."
"Sometimes gifts like that are passed down through generations," Blair said. "Were you an only child?"
"Yes," she replied. "I was... there were complications and my mother couldn't have more children." Mary spared a glance at Blair, eyeing him curiously. "Why are you and Detective Ellison here?"
"Jim and Blair is fine," he replied. Blair explained about MacGeorge and the botched prisoner transfer. He watched her closely as he told about Jim being left to die in the swamp, about being found and nursed by a woman who apparently didn't exist. Then he told her about the conference in New Orleans and the opportunity for a visit. "We should have known better. We can never have a quiet vacation."
Mary chuckled softly, the first time Blair had heard her laugh.
"Where are you staying?" she asked.
"We were going to crash on Harry's floor," Blair replied. "The hotel choices in town are a bit limited."
"You should stay at the Homestead," Mary suggested. "I have two guest rooms. Granted, they aren't as comfortable as the sheriff's floor, but...."
Blair laughed. "I'll see what Jim thinks."
As it turned out, Jim was inclined to agree with the plan. Gabelle seemed a bit irritated, but Jim blamed that on the stuffy attitude of the State Police Lieutenant that took charge of the investigation. Lt. Gordon was Blair's age, but had all the personality of a moth. It was late afternoon before Gabelle told his guests to leave. He had Donnelly drop them off at the Homestead, promising to meet up with Jim and Blair tomorrow.
Donnelly didn't seem pleased about his errand, but did it without complaint. Mary had a car at the Homestead and needed to go back into town for supplies. They would also stop by the office to get their suitcases.
The Homestead was a spacious wood home built, like the others, just on the edge of the bayou. The back porch jutted out into the bog, but the porch itself wrapped around the entire house. The home was two-story, its front windows like hollow eyes in the fading light. A garage was built separately from the house.
Mary unlocked the front door. The light bulb in the hall lamp blew the instant she turned it on. She fumbled around in the dark for a wall switch, a center light illuminating the living room. The furniture was covered in white cloths. A film of dust coated everything.
Jim sneezed as soon as he stepped inside. Blair laughed until he also sneezed.
"Four years accumulates a lot of grime," Mary said.
"I'll say," Jim said.
"We'll have to get dinner," she said. "There's no food here."
"That's probably a good thing," Blair quipped.
Mary sighed. "I hope the old Chevy works."
Max's General Store, Backstone; 5:23 p.m.
It was the sort of old-fashioned general store you read about in early-twentieth century literature. Wooden shelves of canned goods, rice, chips, soda, sugar, spices, and oil. There was a small case for dairy products and a few frozen items. The front counter also served as a small deli where you could order hamburgers, hot dogs or sandwiches to go.
A portly gentleman of about sixty lounged behind the counter, reading a comic book. He had a neatly trimmed beard, thick gray eyebrows, and was completely bald on top.
A cowbell tinkled when his front door opened and Max Burke looked up from Richie Rich's latest adventure.
"If it ain't Mary Carter!" Max exclaimed, pulling himself up from his stool. "It's been quite a few years, Missy."
Mary smiled, then grunted as Max swept her up in a bear hug.
"Hey, Max," she said when he finally put her down.
"Who's yer friends?" Max asked. He stared over her shoulder, eyeing the strangers critically.
"Jim Ellison," Jim said politely. "My partner Blair Sandburg."
Max raised an eyebrow. "Partners?"
"Police partners," Blair amended. He resisted an urge to roll his eyes.
"You with the Staties I saw drivin' through before?" Max asked.
Jim shook his head. "Just visiting."
"Weren't you two here last year when all that trouble started in the swamp?" Max asked, eyeing them critically.
"Guilty," Blair said. "It's just a coincidence this time."
"Bad timing," Max said.
"Extremely," Jim replied.
Max nodded, but didn't look convinced. "So what can I get you, Miss Mary?"
"Some groceries," Mary said. Her eyes glanced across the menu board above the counter, then flitted over to Jim and Blair. "How do you guys feel about cheeseburgers?"
Homestead, Backstone; 5:47 p.m.
They ate on the back porch, watching the sun set across the top of the swamp. Cheeseburgers, a bag of Lay's and cans of Pepsi were divided up. The evening air was thick and still.
Jim watched Mary carefully while they ate. He had no reason to distrust her, nor did he. But there was something about her eyes that bothered him. It wasn't something he could put his finger on, but it disturbed him nonetheless. She listened attentively to Blair's chattering, but still seemed somehow removed from them.
After dinner, they set about cleaning up the place. Jim opened windows while Blair and Mary uncovered furniture and shook out the dusty sheets. All the floors were hardwood and Mary took a quick broom to them. Several light bulbs had to be replaced in the bedrooms. Blair found sheets in a hall closet. They smelled faintly like mothballs and stale air, but were clean.
Jim helped Blair make the beds. As they worked, Blair kept eyeing Jim.
"What?" Jim finally asked.
"You've been watching Mary like a prison warden," Blair said softly. "What's going on?"
Jim shrugged, tugging the fitted sheet around the bed corner. "I don't know. I don't know if it's her or this place."
Blair snapped out the top sheet, letting it fall gently across the mattress. "Is it something you're sensing?"
"I really don't know, Chief," Jim said. "If I did I'd try to explain it better, but I don't."
"When you do--"
"I'll let you know," Jim interrupted.
They finished the top sheet and moved on to the blanket before Blair pressed again.
"Does it have something to do with Pam Leary?" Blair asked.
"Maybe," Jim admitted. "If someone knew about a disappearance in Cascade, that person is usually considered an immediate suspect. But out here the rules are different."
"So you believe she had a vision," Blair said.
Jim paused. "I believe that she believes it. And if she's lying, she's damned good at it because I couldn't tell."
"So what are we doing tomorrow?" Blair asked. "Harry will probably be tied up with the State Police."
Jim remembered what Mary had said about Merry. That Merry's father, Winston Derkins, couldn't have killed her like the townsfolk believed. They hadn't come to Backstone looking for a mystery to solve. But apparently they'd found one anyway.
"How about a little detective work, partner?" Jim asked.
Blair rolled over and opened bleary eyes. He was staring at a plain wood wall. He shot up in bed, wondering where he was. Then he remembered. He sneezed once; the room was still a bit musty.
But that happens when a place is closed up for four years, Blair thought.
He tried to figure out what had awakened him. Blair felt pressure on his bladder. That was it.
Blair climbed out of bed and padded down the hallway to the bathroom. He did his business and was about to go back to bed when he noticed a soft light in the kitchen. He followed the light, careful not to stub his toes in the near-darkness. The kitchen was empty.
The back door to the porch was open, letting a cool breeze into the house. He could see a dark shape sitting on the edge of the porch, side-lit by a citronella candle. The shape turned its head.
"Mary?" Blair whispered.
He stepped out onto the porch. Moonlight cast a silvery glow on the swamp. A light mist floated on top of the water, curling around the base of cypress trees like ghostly fingers. A frog croaked somewhere far away. Something splashed nearby.
"What are you doing up?" Blair asked. He walked over and sat next to her. The wood was soft from years of weathered aging.
"I'm listening," she said.
Blair cocked his head to one side. "Listening to what? Frogs?"
Mary smiled, but shook her head. "The backwater is a mysterious place. Some say it contains the souls of all those who have died there. If you listen hard enough at night, you can hear their voices whispering to you. Guiding and protecting you."
"I remember," Blair said. "I felt something magical about this place last year. I asked the swamp to protect Jim. I wonder now if it really heard me."
"It did," Mary said. "And it will hear you again. Aunt Merry's out there, Blair. She wants something and I desperately want to help her."
"We will," Blair said. "I think Jim and I both agree on that. If Merry really did save his life last year... well..."
"You feel you owe her," Mary said.
An unseen creature plopped into the water near the porch. They saw the ripples, but the culprit was gone.
"How does it feel to be home?" Blair asked.
Mary thought in silence for several moments.
"Incomplete," she said.
Then she looked at Blair. In the light of the flickering candle, her green eyes seemed strangely... blank.
Homestead, Backstone; 7:35 a.m., Sunday
The fog had rolled in thick overnight, effectively blotting out the morning sunshine. Mary was up when Blair rolled back out of bed. He wondered briefly if she had slept at all last night. A few minutes later, Jim shuffled into the kitchen, seemingly pulled from his sleep by the scent of frying eggs and coffee. Mary stood by the stove, her attention shifting from the eggs to the fog outside.
Jim sat at the table and sipped his coffee. He seemed preoccupied with something.
"What's up, Jim?" Blair asked, sitting down next to him.
"I'm not sure," Jim said. "I think I was dreaming, but I could have sworn I was awake."
Blair stopped stirring his coffee. "What do you mean?"
Jim shrugged, apparently wishing he hadn't brought it up. "I sat up in bed because I heard someone say my name. I looked at the window and she was watching me."
"She who?" Blair asked.
"Merry," Jim said. His eyes stayed fixed on his coffee.
"Mary?" Blair repeated, jacking a thumb behind him.
Jim shook his head, remembering the long red hair and old-fashioned dress. "No, her aunt. The other Merry."
"What did she do?" Mary asked, paying attention for the first time. She brought three plates of eggs to the table.
"She just looked at me. Then she nodded like I knew exactly what she was thinking. I blinked and she was gone. Either I fell asleep or stopped dreaming, because I woke up a few minutes ago."
"Aunt Merry knows," Mary said.
"Knows?" Blair asked. "Knows what?"
Mary smiled, but her eyes still remained blank. "That you want to help her."
Jim frowned and glanced over at Blair. Blair nodded. Jim nodded back.
"We do," Jim said. "Does Backstone have a newspaper office?"
"There was a local paper until about twenty years ago," Mary said. "The office is closed, but the front of it was turned into the used bookstore. I'm sure all the old papers are still stored in there somewhere."
"Chief, can you do some digging?" Jim asked.
"Sure," Blair said. "What are you going to do?"
"Pick some brains," he replied. "See what some of the old-timers remember."
Max's General Store; 9:12 a.m.
Max wasn't in that morning. His son Randall Burke was minding the store for the day. Randall was only two years old the year that Merry and her father perished in the fire that consumed their cabin. He heard stories of it growing up. He would hide under the supper table while the adults gossiped about the Derkins family, listening and pretending he was a private eye gathering information for a client.
That morning he was more than willing to share what he remembered with Jim and Mary.
"Most folks seemed unwillin' to talk about what happened," Randall said. He handed out styrofoam cups of coffee as he spoke. There were no other customers in the store.
"'Cept my parents and their friends. Every night they'd yap on about what ole Winston Derkins' kid was up to. Everyone wanted yer mother to sell the land off and leave town, but she never did. Not 'til yer pop did," he said to Mary.
Mary held the coffee gently, but did not drink it.
"Did they ever talk specifically about the fire?" Jim asked.
"Not much as I got older," Randall said. "Not that I recall. It was ages ago, remember. My older brother used to whisper to his pals that the boyfriend did it. Don't remember his name, but he wasn't from town."
Randall watched Mary with pitying eyes. "I remember you liked to come in here in the summer and buy grape popsicles."
"My mouth was always purple," Mary said.
He grinned. "You should go talk to Scott Tibalt, over at the Post Office. I bet he could tell you more than I can. It's closed today, but he lives above it."
"Thank you, Randy," Mary said.
"I hope you find what you're lookin' for," Randall said.
Page In Time
The used bookstore was little more than a small room crammed floor to ceiling with musty books. Hardcover, paperback, ancient leather bound tomes. Most were on shelves, but there were several boxes of books marked 3/$1.00 scattered around the floor.
Blair decided he'd love to snoop around and see if there were any good finds hidden away in here, but he had a job to do first. He managed to find a tiny desk in the back of the room and a tiny woman sitting behind it.
"Lookin' fer somethin' in particular?" she asked. The woman was in her late thirties, maybe five-feet tall, with blonde hair back in a long braid.
"I am, actually." Blair gave her a killer grin and leaned on the edge of the desk. "I was hoping to get a look at the old town newspapers."
"Not from around here, are ya?" she asked. "Yankee?"
"Washington State," Blair replied. "My name is Blair Sandburg."
"Patty Devroux," she said. "What do you need the papers for, Mr. Sandburg?"
"Blair's fine," he said, smiling again. Patty smiled back.
"What do you need the papers for, Blair?" Patty asked again.
Ghost hunting, he thought. No big deal.
Obfuscation was often the best compromise. "I'm a graduate student at Louisiana State," Blair said. "I'm researching a paper on towns along this stretch of the bayou over the last fifty years or so. Important families, local legends, major town events. I figured looking at old papers would be the best way to see how the town used to be."
Patty seemed impressed that someone wanted to research her little town. She grinned at Blair, taking a moment to flip her braid over one shoulder.
"They're all in the back room," Patty said.
She stood up and walked to a door just left of the desk. Patty took a key off the wall and unlocked the door. She opened it and reached in to turn on a light. Blair followed her inside.
The room was stale. A bit of sunlight filtered in through dirty windows. There were shelves of bound newspapers lining three of the four walls. A table and chair sat against the fourth.
"They're in numerical order," Patty said. "Latest are to the left, the earliest to the right. Shout if you need anything."
"I will," Blair said, gazing around the room. "Thanks, Patty."
Backstone Post Office
Scott Tibalt leaned back in his overstuffed sofa, long gray hair falling into his face. He was doughy and wrinkled, but had sharp eyes and a razor tongue.
"Damn straight I knew Daniel Foster," Tibalt said. "Met him at the university. He was from the city and liked to see how us hicks lived. Came out for Spring Break '74 and fell straight away for Miss Merry Derkins. It was the hair, he said."
"But her father didn't approve," Jim said.
"Mr. Derkins didn't approve of nobody for his girls," Tibalt said. He looked pointedly at Mary. "Not even yer father. But Merry was the youngest and Mr. Derkins didn't approve of city folks. Not many around here that did."
"They kept seeing each other," Jim said.
"Sure did," Tibalt said. "Daniel would come home with me on breaks just to see her."
Tibalt quieted, thinking hard. "It was summer of '75 that the fire happened. S'posedly Mr. Derkins caught Mary and Daniel together in the cabin and burnt it down. Dunno if that's true, but Daniel had a temper hisself. He coulda started that fire as easy as anyone."
Jim frowned. "But why would Daniel kill Merry, too?"
"Daniel felt love real powerful, he told me once," Tibalt explained. "He and Merry pledged eternal love or something gooey like that. Maybe he figured if he couldn't have her..."
"Did anyone else think Daniel could have killed them all?" Jim asked.
"Some did," Tibalt replied thoughtfully. "But most figured the family was crackers and wrote it off on Mr. Derkins." He glanced at Mary, silent this whole time. "No offense."
Mary shook her head.
"So no one ever investigated Daniel Foster," Jim said matter-of-factly.
Tibalt shrugged. "Not that I know of. You'd have to check sheriff's records to know that. Back then it was Sheriff Manifold in charge."
Jim committed the name to memory. "Is there anything else you can think of that may be relevant?"
"That's all I know," Tibalt said.
"Thanks for your time," Jim said.
Page In Time
Blair sneezed again, wiping his itching nose on the back of his sleeve. Every time he turned the pages of the bound newspapers, a new waft of stale paper shot into his nose. He was used to working around old books and papers, but this was getting ridiculous.
He had examined every newspaper from the summer of 1975 and hadn't found anything useful, except what wasn't there. The fire that consumed the cabin occurred on July 3. There were several articles about the fire, the state police investigation and the final declaration of Winston Derkins' guilt. But in the issues for July 5, 7, and 8, there were articles missing. Three separate editorials had been cut out of the newspapers.
Blair closed the book. His curiosity was on overload. He stood up and stretched his back for a moment before walking over to the door.
"Hey, Patty?" he asked.
She appeared in front of him almost immediately, smiling sweetly. "Yes?"
"How long has the bookstore been here?" Blair asked.
"About fifteen years," Patty said. "Before that it was in the little room above the Laundromat."
Blair nodded. "Do you own it?"
"Goodness, no." Patty laughed. "I inherited it -- so to speak -- when old Missus Crawlins died about seven years ago. She was my neighbor and didn't have any kin, so she left all her books to me."
"Has anyone else ever asked to see these old papers?" he asked.
Patty shook her head. "Not to my knowledge. Never asked me, anyhow. But the sheriff's got a key, too. He looks after the place when I go on vacation. 'Course, the Missus coulda let anybody back here. She couldn't say no to anyone, the sweet old thing."
"Do you mind if I take one of the volumes with me?" Blair asked. "I forgot my notebook and need to copy down some material. I can have it back tomorrow."
Patty didn't seem like she would agree, but Blair flashed her a smile and she nodded.
"Okay, but just until tomorrow."
Blair picked up the volume. "Thanks, Patty. I'll see you tomorrow, then."
He wove through the stacks of books and finally escaped the musty building. It was already getting hot outside. The sun had eaten through the morning fog and shined brightly through the trees. Blair checked his watch. It was almost noon.
Blair jumped and turned. Mike Donnelly walked up from behind, chuckling softly.
"Didn't mean to scare you," Donnelly said. "Whatcha got?"
Blair looked down at the newspaper tome. "Just thought I'd catch up on town history while I was here."
Donnelly glanced at the date stamped on the front in gold foil. "Any history in particular?"
"I was thinking of writing a paper on ghost stories," Blair said. "You just can't take academia out of some people."
"Guess not," Donnelly said. "But you know ghosts don't exist, right?"
Blair frowned. "You don't believe in your own local legends?"
Donnelly shrugged. "I grew up in New Orleans, not Backstone, so I don't put much stock in it. Some of my family does, though. I suppose I never believed in anything I couldn't see and touch for myself."
"You sound like Jim used to," Blair said.
"What changed?" Donnelly asked.
"Five years of hanging out with me, I guess," Blair joked.
Donnelly grinned. "That could drive any sane person to believe in the supernatural."
"Hey!" Blair said, pretending to be hurt. "Listen, I'm meeting Jim for lunch. You want to join us?"
"Naw, but thanks. I got stuff to do."
"Okay, then. See you later, Mike."
Donnelly turned to cross the street. "Later."
Blair watched him jog across the dirt road and head for the sheriff's office. Then Blair pivoted and walked in the other direction.
Wilson's Cafe; 12:08 p.m.
When Jim had asked Gabelle to look at some old case files, Gabelle was too busy yelling at a state officer to do more than nod. Jim had found the slim file on the Derkins fire and sat down to read it. There wasn't much information. Running a few minutes late for lunch, he had put the file back and slipped out of the sheriff's office.
He crossed the street and had entered the cafe to find Mary and Blair waiting for him. For his part, Blair had a large leather bound book with 1975 stamped on the cover.
"Anything in the papers?" Jim asked as he sat down.
"Three things not in the papers," Blair said. He opened the book to one of the missing sections. "Three editorials, to be precise. I don't know what they were about, but all were dated a couple of days after the fire."
A waitress shambled over and took their drink order. Once she'd left again, Jim explained to Blair about Daniel Foster.
"So Foster could have been the firebug?" Blair asked.
"Could be," Jim said. "According to his file, he was never investigated. Everyone assumed that Winston Derkins did it. There isn't even an old address on Foster in the file. It seems awfully sloppy that Sheriff Manifold wouldn't even have tried that angle."
"What if it was neither?" Mary said.
Both men turned to stare at her. Mary glanced at each of them in turn, then cleared her throat.
"What I mean is, what if neither my grandfather or Daniel Foster set the fire," Mary explained. "What if someone else had something to gain by killing one or all of them?"
"You think there's a fourth party involved?" Blair asked.
Mary turned the page in the newspaper tome. On the front page was a photograph of Daniel Foster. He was handsome in a boyish way, with longish hair and dimples. Mary gazed at the photo for a moment.
"Daniel truly loved Aunt Merry," Mary said. A knowing haze settled into her eyes where there was normally only blankness. "I know he did. So did my grandfather. I don't believe either one of them could have purposefully killed her, or each other."
"You think that's why Merry is still here," Blair said. "She can't rest knowing her killer is still out there."
"Or knowing someone she loves is being wrongfully blamed," Mary added. The knowledge vanished again and there was once again an empty void.
"So the trick is finding out who this fourth party is," Jim said. "And what they had to gain from murder."
The meal progressed in relative silence. Each sat brooding over the new information, wondering what to do next. Jim had just asked the waitress for the check when Sheriff Gabelle entered the cafe. His gaze fell on the trio and he lumbered over.
"How's it going?" Blair asked.
Gabelle groaned as he sank into an empty chair. He fixed Mary with a queer look, not exactly acknowledgment, but not quite dislike, either.
"Looks like Pam was murdered," Gabelle said. No one had suspected otherwise, but the statement put a final spin on it. "We found her in the swamp, sunk about a mile away. It was a shotgun."
Mary looked down at her lap.
Jim cleared his throat. "Did you find the shell casings?" he asked.
Gabelle shook his head. "Nope, but the Staties are taking her up to the hospital for an autopsy. They'll analyze the shot pellets, her sheets, everything. I get to sit on my ass and wait."
"I'm real sorry, Harry," Blair said.
Gabelle offered him a wan smile. "It's not your fault, Blair," he said, leaning back in the chair. "Folks will be locking their doors tonight."
Near Potter's Bog; 12:45 p.m.
The gentle chugging of the small boat's motor sent vibrations up Jim's hand as he navigated their way through the bayou. It had been Blair's idea to visit the remains of the Derkins cabin. Jim didn't know what he expected to find there; the idea put a couple of butterflies in his stomach.
Mary was entertaining Blair with an old ghost story from her childhood.
"...Didn't like to drive through the bayou at night," she said. Her voice drifted across the water, echoing back to them softly. "That's when they come out. You can only see their eyes, glowing red far back in the marshes and bogs. They never come out into the road. But legend is that if your window is down or you look one in the eye, then they will swoop into the car and grab you right out."
Jim smiled at the story. He'd heard a similar one once before. He just couldn't remember when. Jim navigated around a fallen log, a feeling of familiarity washing over him.
"They'll take you into the bog," Mary continued. "Deep, deep where moss grows thick and even the crocs are afraid to wander. On a tiny island is a big iron cooking pot in the middle of a bonfire. Even in the light, all you can see is their black shape and red eyes. You scream and no sound comes out--"
Something splashed to their left and Mary stopped. Again, ripples were the only sign of the disturbance.
"So they cook you up into stew?" Blair asked.
"Perhaps," Mary said mysteriously. "No one has ever come back to tell the tale."
Her eyes held his attention for a moment, then Blair chuckled and broke the spell. "I heard a story like that from a tribe in Chile..."
Jim had heard this story before, so he tuned it out. Instead, he watched their path through the swamp. The small metal boat cut through the murky water. The mid-afternoon sun sat high in the sky, but little light made it through the thick canopy of cypress tress and Spanish moss. Jim felt like he remembered that particular tree -- the way its two branches curved away from each other in a U instead of a V -- but knew it was just his imagination.
A chill ran through him, even in the afternoon heat. Jim glanced around, once again sure that they were being watched. He let his hearing drift, but heard only three heartbeats, crickets chirping and soft things slithering about.
A dozen feet ahead, Jim saw a log sticking up from the water. No, not a log, but an ancient pylon. A pylon gray with age and black with soot.
"We're almost there," Jim said.
Blair's chattering ceased. They rode in silence; the pylon grew closer. A tiny island of shrubs blocked their view of anything past the pylon. Jim maneuvered the boat around the island in a small arc.
They came out past the brush and for just an instant, it was as Jim remembered it. The cabin stood in the middle of brown water, its dark wood aged and dry. Green moss grew on the support pylons. The beaten metal roof reflected bits of the sun and a small line of smoke drifted up from the brick chimney.
Jim blinked. It was as it should be. Charred pylons scattered here and there. Most of the porch boards rotted away. The walls burned down long ago, only a half-erect shell remaining of the cabin. A small bush had taken root on one corner of the porch.
"Did you guys see that?" Blair asked.
"The cabin," Jim said.
Blair shook his head. He pointed toward the stern. "I swear I saw a crocodile looking at me over there."
Mary turned and looked at Jim, meeting his eyes. She nodded. She'd seen what he'd seen.
Jim turned off the motor, letting the boat drift nearer to the debris. The soft sound of lapping water mingled with the ache of old wood. He heard a faint pop, like a snapping branch.
Blair picked up a paddle and pushed them toward the cabin shell. Mary reached out to touch a pylon as they passed, its surface gray and weathered. She gasped and pulled away.
"Mary?" Jim asked.
She shook her head, making no move to touch another pylon. The little boat drifted around the perimeter of the porch.
Jim didn't know what he'd expected to find out here, but he let all of his senses open wide. The snap-crackle of old wood became louder, almost nearer. There was also a scent he recognized. He'd first smelled it at Pam's house. Jim closed his eyes and focused on the scent, trying to pinpoint its origin.
Blair's voice burst into the haze of his concentration. "Jim!" he yelled.
Before Jim could open his eyes, something cracked against the top of his skull. Bright white, then darkness.
He is first aware of warmth on his face and arms. Then the crackling sounds of a small fire. He peeks an eye open and finds himself staring into orange flames. That explains the warmth.
Jim sits up slowly. He sits on a board floor, near an open fireplace. The small cabin looks terrifyingly familiar. It is also empty.
He carefully stands up, mindful of the dull throbbing in his head. He passes a small cot he vaguely remembers sleeping on once upon a time. He is drawn to the front door.
It opens by itself, spilling in sunlight. Jim walks through the sunlight and finds himself on the porch. She stands on the edge of the porch, her red hair glimmering like fire. She turns.
"You came back," Merry says.
"This isn't real," Jim says. But the boards beneath his feet feel real. The mosquito buzzing by his ear sounds real.
"This is how you remember me," she says.
Jim nods, looking behind him. The cabin is new and unmarred by ash or smoke.
"I remember what you said to me," Jim says, watching her again. "You said Daddy went hunting. What happened when he came back?"
Merry's eyes glitter with tears. She blinks and two red tears trail down her cheeks.
"He wasn't alone," Merry says. "Look in the Essex under the eaves, Jim."
Sudden darkness, as if the sun is immediately blotted out. Jim can see nothing in front of or around him. He hears a gun firing, the loud blast of a shotgun.
A match is lit, but sheds no light.
Flames rise up, immediately squelched by darkness.
"Jim? Jim, come on, man."
Blair's voice pulled Jim back from the darkness. He blinked and opened his eyes. He lay in a heap in the bottom of the boat. Mary and Blair hovered above him, both mirroring expressions of concern.
"Ow," Jim said, trying to sit up. A sharp sting of pain shot up the back of his head.
"You got walloped with a piece of the cabin," Blair said. "Damn thing is starting to fall apart."
"The cabin was real," Jim said. "I saw her."
Blair blinked owlishly. "What?"
"When I was unconscious," Jim said. "I saw Merry. She said her father wasn't alone when he came home the day of the fire. But she didn't say who was with him."
Mary looked up at the ruins of the Derkins cabin. "Who else was there, Aunt Merry," she asked softly.
"She said something strange," Jim said. "Said to look in the Essex under the eaves."
"Eaves as in a roof?" Blair asked.
"I think so, but what is an Essex?" Jim glanced at Mary. "Any ideas?"
She shook her head. "None. Maybe it's a name on a shoe box or container." Mary's eyes brightened for an instant. "The attic of the Homestead, maybe. It has a pointed roof, she could mean where the roof and wall connect."
"It's an idea," Jim said. He gazed around, once again wondering if they were being watched. The faint scent from before was gone. "Maybe we should go."
The Homestead; 5:54 p.m.
Hours of work had resulted in a thorough search of the attic and everything in it. There was precious little against the wall or under the eaves. Most of the junk was congregated in the center of the attic where the ceiling was tallest.
Hats, clothes, a mannequin, an ancient Singer sewing machine; Blair even uncovered a scrapbook full of clippings from World War I.
But they hadn't come across anything with "Essex" on it.
Jim sneezed against the accumulated dust and grime. His eyes were beginning to water.
Mary put a hatbox down with a loud thump. "Maybe I was wrong about what eaves meant."
The grandfather clock downstairs chimed six o'clock.
"Damn," Mary said. "I invited the sheriff to dinner at six-thirty. I hope you don't mind, but you did come here to visit and have hardly seen him in two days."
"That's cool," Blair said. "Need help cooking?"
"I was going to make kettle corn," Mary said. "Do you know how?"
Blair shook his head. "Not a clue," he said. "But I can learn."
Jim watched the two leave, then gazed slowly around the room. Something told him that the answer they needed was in this room. He just didn't know how to get at it.
"Where's the Essex?" Jim asked aloud.
Blair shook himself awake, sitting up in bed. The house was fairly silent, save the occasional frog croaking outside. And it wasn't his bladder that woke him up this time.
Creaking steps, going up.
He climbed out of bed and walked to the door. In the dimness, he could see that the door to the attic stairs was open. Blair padded down the hall and peeked in the door. At the top of the stairs, he saw the edge of a nightgown disappear into the attic.
"Mary?" he hissed.
Receiving no reply, Blair carefully crept up the stairs, the creaking suddenly louder in the still of the night. When he emerged in the attic, he could barely see through the gloom. The white nightgown shifted by one of the walls, hunched over beneath an eave.
"Mary?" he asked again, louder this time.
She still didn't reply and Blair wondered immediately if she were sleepwalking.
He heard a cracking sound, like a board being ripped away. Wood hitting wood as something fell to the floor. Something else rustled.
Unable to stand it, Blair reached to the side and flipped on the light switch. The naked bulb illuminated the room and Blair blinked against the sudden onslaught of light. Mary shrieked and dropped something. It hit the floor with a bang, spilling its contents.
Blair heard a shout from below that could only be Jim. Footsteps pounding toward them.
Mary stared at her feet, unaware that she had sleepwalked all the way up there. Blair walked over in time to miss Jim's quick entry into the attic. Jim skidded to a stop, staring at them both.
"What happened?" Jim asked.
"She was sleepwalking," Blair said. "And found that."
The men looked down.
At Mary's feet was an open Essex Cookies tin. Several old photographs and newspaper clippings had spilled out. More papers were still in the tin.
Blair squatted, picking up one of the photos. It was black and white. Two men in their late teens stood shoulder to shoulder. The corpse of a deer lay on the ground in front of them.
Mary snapped out of her surprise and peered over Blair's shoulder at the picture. "The one on the left is my grandfather, Winston," she said. "I'm not..."
Blair turned the photo over. Scrawled on the back were the words, "Winston & Frank, Summer '39."
"Frank," Mary said. "I've never heard of him."
"Old hunting buddy, I'd say," Jim said.
Jim bent to pick up the stack of newspaper clippings. There were several articles on the disappearance of three teenage girls in the area. All three were tourists and were reported missing in 1954 and 1955.
"Strange," Jim muttered.
Mary picked up the tin. Inside were an old photograph and a stack of bound letters. The photo was worn and bent, but two young people smiled back at them. One was easily recognizable as Merry Derkins. The writing on the back identified the man as Daniel Foster. There was no date, but it was easy to guess when it was taken. The letters were all addressed to Merry, written by Daniel.
"Wow," Blair said.
Jim nodded. "Yeah."
Mary reached for the picture of Winston and Frank. The instant she touched the photograph, she pulled her hand away as if burned.
"Sheriff!" she screamed. Mary shot to her feet and pushed past Jim and Blair, bolting down the stairs.
It took a half-second for them to process her movements and take off after her.
Sheriff's Office; 5:27 a.m., Monday
Jim and Blair had barely time to climb in the Chevy before Mary had taken off for town. Blair still had the hunting photograph clutched in his hand. She had offered no explanation, only stared straight out the windshield, her face a hard mask of worry. The fog was less thick than yesterday, but still present. Dawn barely peeked over the horizon as Mary's car ground to a stop in front of the Sheriff's Office.
Mary shoved the gear into park before dashing out of the car and up onto the porch. Jim and Blair were on her heels, no one bothering to turn the motor off.
The front door was unlocked. She turned the knob and stumbled inside.
The office was a mess. Filing cabinets were open and papers strewn about. Every drawer in both desks had been emptied onto the floor. Paper piles on the desks were scattered around, creating an image of a violent windstorm.
Jim looked around in astonishment. The first thing that hit him was that scent from Pam's bedroom and the cabin. It had to be cologne
"Over here," Blair said.
He was kneeling behind one of the desks, the top of his head barely visible over the mess. Jim and Mary picked their way over.
Harry Gabelle lay crumpled on the floor by his overturned chair, bleeding from a cut above his right temple. His breathing was shallow and labored. A purple bruise had already begun to spread from his hairline to his cheekbone.
"Oh, God," Mary muttered.
"He needs to get to the hospital," Jim said.
"An ambulance out here would take forever," Mary said.
"You drive him," Jim said. "Sandburg, go with her."
"What?" Blair asked.
Jim fixed him with an intense stare. "Whoever killed Pam Leary was here tonight," he said. "I can smell their aftershave."
Blair nodded. "What are you gonna do?"
"Call Donnelly," Jim said. "And Lt. Gordon. This is not a coincidence."
With a bit of careful effort, Jim and Blair carried Gabelle out to Mary's car. He groaned once, but did not regain consciousness. They gently placed him in the back seat.
It was at that moment that everyone realized they were still in their pajamas. While Jim and Blair looked halfway normal in T-shirts and shorts, Mary wore a white, cotton nightgown. Jim was thankful he'd at least thought to grab shoes on the way out the door.
Modesty issues aside, Blair climbed into the front seat. Mary sat in the back, gently cradling Gabelle's head in her lap.
"Be careful," Blair said to Jim.
Jim nodded. "You, too."
He watched them drive off, silently praying for the best. Once the Chevy was out of sight, Jim went back inside. He made two quick phone calls, then moved to the center of the ransacked room. Jim slowly let his sense of smell wander, trying to pick up anything else unusual.
He smelled lantern oil. A decorative lamp lay smashed to pieces by Donnelly's desk. Jim walked over and bent down. The brown oil hadn't had much time to soak into the wood floor. And it had been smeared by a shoe... or by several shoes. Jim looked up. A trail of smudged footprints led toward the back room.
Jim followed the trail past the holding cells and toward a back door. The door was partly open, spilling in a bit of morning sunshine. He pushed open the door and was greeted by a thin stretch of grass that came up short against the bayou. Wisps of fog hovered above the water. A dark line cut through the dew on the grass, heading straight for the bog.
They came and left in a boat. By now the perp could be anywhere in the swamp.
Whoever he was.
14 Miles Outside Backstone; 5:41 a.m.
Blair's hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as he negotiated another curve in the dusty back road that led away from town. The sudden move elicited a soft squeal from the back seat as Mary was jostled against the door.
"Sorry," Blair muttered.
A deep moan drifted up from the back.
"Sheriff?" Mary whispered.
"Is he awake?" Blair asked, angling the rearview mirror down so he could see.
"He's waking up," Mary said. "Sheriff Gabelle?"
"Where...?" Gabelle mumbled.
"We're taking you to the hospital," Mary explained. "Do you know what happened?"
"Fell asleep," he said, his voice slurred. "Woke up'n somethin' hit me. Fell down."
"Did you see someone?" Blair asked.
Gabelle tried to turn his head toward Blair's voice and groaned. "Saw boots... kicked me. Silver."
"Silver?" Mary repeated. "Silver what?"
Gabelle blinked hard, trying to focus. "Dunno," he managed, his eyes sliding shut. "Buckle, maybe."
"Hold on, Harry," Blair said. "We'll be there soon."
"He's unconscious again," Mary said.
Blair sent out a silent request for protection and speed. He fixed his attention on the road as the dirt quickly gave way to a paved street.
County Hospital, Louisiana; 6:14 a.m.
It was a severe concussion.
At least, that's what Dr. Aubrey told them fifteen minutes after Blair and Mary brought Harry Gabelle into the ER. He would require several days of bed rest and would be admitted for the night.
That was good news.
Blair automatically reached for his cell phone, but it wasn't there. Again, he was reminded of how quickly they'd left the house this morning. During their wait, a nurse had given Mary a pair of jeans and T-shirt from Lost & Found. She'd also delivered a flannel shirt to give Blair's outfit some semblance of day-wear.
Before he could go to the nurse's station, the duty nurse came and got him. He had a phone call. Blair followed her to the main desk.
"Sandburg?" Jim's voice asked. He sounded out of breath.
"Yeah," Blair said. "Harry's got a concussion. They're keeping him overnight, but he'll be fine."
"What have you found?" Blair was aware of Mary at his elbow, listening to his end of the conversation.
"Not much. The State Police are out searching in boats. It looks like whoever did it fled into the swamp, but there's not much to track."
He leaned against the counter and heard a crinkling sound in his pocket. Blair pulled out the photograph of Winston Derkins and Frank. He looked closely at the photo.
"One second, Jim," he said.
Mary's eyes seemed to gravitate toward what Blair was looking at. "My God," she muttered.
"What is it?"
"Jim," Blair said. "Harry was awake for a minute and said someone kicked him. Someone wearing boots with silver buckles."
"I'm looking at that old photograph of Winston Derkins's hunting buddy. He's wearing black boots with what looks like big silver buckles. They look kind of like Confederate flags."
"I'm on it," Jim said.
"We're gonna wait until Harry is settled, then come back," Blair said. "See you in about an hour."
Blair hung up, still studying the photograph. If this Frank person was still alive, they may have found their killer.
Outside Backstone, Louisiana; 6:51 a.m.
Mary dozed in the front seat on the way back to Backstone. Blair searched the local stations, but couldn't come up with anything other than country and a Spanish station.
He didn't swerve far enough to miss a rut in the road. The bump jolted Mary awake. She sat up straight in the seat, her hands clutching the dashboard.
"Sorry," Blair said.
She shook her head. "It wasn't you. I had a strange dream."
"What was it?" he asked, able to miss the next pothole.
"I was back at the Homestead," Mary said. "Standing on the back porch. I looked through the window into the kitchen and saw a panther and wolf. They were staring at each other and were chained to the wall."
Blair kept his eyes fixed on the road in front of him. "Then?"
"I woke up," she said. "I don't know what to make of it."
"Me, either," Blair replied.
Sheriff's Office, Backstone
Ten minutes later, Blair and Mary walked into the office. The State Police wandered in and out, coordinating the search of the swamp. Others were making rounds about town, talking to the locals.
Jim was inside, staring at a couple stacks of papers, deep in thought.
"Anything?" Blair asked as they walked over.
Jim looked up and nodded. He held up one of the papers he was reading. "I found our mystery man. Frances Simms died of liver failure last December."
"Simms?" Mary repeated. "I grew up with a Patrick Simms. Frank would have to be his grandfather."
"Frank owned a small cabin on the edge of Potter's Bog," Jim said. "He left it to his son, Gary Simms. Frank also had a daughter named Sharon, but she died eight years ago."
"How about Gary?" Blair asked.
Jim shook his head. "I have one of the state officers looking into him."
"Where's Mike?" Blair asked.
"Still out in the swamps," Jim said. He looked down at his clothes, then back up at Mary. "Why don't we head back to the Homestead and change? I want to take a look at the rest of the stuff in that tin."
Blair's stomach growled. "Breakfast couldn't hurt, either."
The Homestead; 7:26 a.m.
The second they walked inside, Jim smelled the cologne. The exact same scent. It made him freeze in his tracks. Blair recognized the reaction and stilled Mary. A quick sweep found only three heartbeats.
"They were here," Jim said.
The trio rushed to the attic and charged up the stairs. The bare bulb had been left on. The Essex tin still lay on its side with photos and papers scattered around it.
"Guess we scared them off," Blair said.
He picked up another photograph. This one was of Frank, Winston and Merry. Merry stood between the two men, but did not smile like they did. Frank and Winston each proudly held a hunting rifle.
"Daddy's gone a-hunting," Jim murmured.
"What?" Mary asked, staring at the face of an aunt she'd never met. Her own face.
"Last year," Jim said. "Merry told me her father was hunting. And if he came back and found me there he'd be angry. Do you think that's what she told Daniel the day of the fire?"
"Could be," Blair said. "Sometimes spirits are trapped in the day they died and relive it over and over. You could have been drawn into it somehow. I mean, it makes sense."
"What if he wasn't hunting alone?" Jim asked.
"Huh?" Blair looked up curiously.
"Work with me a second," Jim said. "Mr. Tibalt said there was no way Daniel could have killed Merry. And you--" he pointed at Mary "--said Winston couldn't have done it. What if Frank was out hunting with Winston that day."
"But what would Frank gain from killing them all?" Blair asked.
Everyone jumped. A framed picture that must have been precariously perched had fallen to the floor, shattering the glass.
Mary walked over and picked it up. The broken glass fell away from the picture. It was a nicely matted black-and-white of the Homestead. Behind it was a piece of yellowed paper.
"What's that?" Blair asked.
She peeled it off the backing and carefully unfolded it. The typing was faded, but still completely legible.
"It's a land deed," Mary said. "March 2, 1955." As she read the fine print her eyes grew wider and wider. "It was all the original Homestead land."
Jim moved to read over her shoulder. "Issued from Francis Simms to Winston Derkins. Two hundred acres. For the price of one dollar?"
"That doesn't make sense," Blair said. "Why would Frank sell so much land for a buck?"
"I don't know, Chief," Jim replied. "It was twenty years before the fire. But the same year as these missing tourist articles."
"Okay, now I'm confused," Blair said.
Jim snorted. "Get in line. Mary, do you have a map of the land around here? I want to get an idea of what I'm looking at."
"Downstairs," she replied.
They gathered up everything that had come out of the tin and trouped downstairs. Mary found an old map in her desk and spread it out on the kitchen table. A bean-shaped section of land was marked with a pen and shaded yellow. Smaller pieces had since been sectioned out of that large piece.
"We're here," Mary said, pointing to a dot on the concave side of the 'bean.' "Potter's Bog is out there. And Frank Simms's house would be over here." It was the far southern border of the land.
"That's Pam's house," Blair said. His finger was on a large section at the opposite end.
Mary nodded. "It looks like the first piece of land to be sold," she said.
Jim pointed to a few of the unmarked sections of land. "Who owns these pieces?"
Mary shook her head. "I'm not sure who my dad sold them to."
"We should find out," Jim said.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
"I'm not saying anything yet," Jim said. "But I'm getting a good idea."
Jim's cell phone rang. "Ellison." He listened for a few moments. "Thanks, officer," he said and snapped the phone shut.
"What'd they find?" Blair asked.
"Gary Simms died in a car accident two months ago," Jim said. "He had two sons, Patrick and Donald. They own the cabin now, but apparently don't live there anymore. All anyone seems to know about Sharon Simms is she moved to New Orleans, got married, and died there. They're still tracking down her husband."
"We should check out the Simms cabin," Blair said. "See if Patrick or Donald have been around recently."
"Yeah," Jim said. "But real clothes, first. I can't take myself seriously running around in my underwear."
Mary stood on the front porch, watching Jim and Blair drive down the lane. She hadn't argued when they asked her to stay home. In fact, she was relieved. The dream about the panther and wolf was still bugging her. There seemed to be no meaning behind it. At least she would have some time to try and sort it out.
She turned and walked back inside. Mary paused in the living room. A chill ran down her spine, and goose bumps appeared up and down her arms. Her eyes drifted toward the kitchen. She once again thought of the dream, about how she was standing outside looking in.
Mary walked into the kitchen and straight to the back door. It was slightly ajar. Then she smelled it -- the strong odor of too much aftershave.
She turned to run, but a strong hand clamped over her mouth and twisted her right arm behind her back. She tried to struggle, but was pressed back against someone's chest.
"Long time no see, Mary," a male voice said.
Mary was bodily turned around to face the hallway. Two young men walked in holding shotguns and grinning like bandits. Both had silver flag buckles on their boots. The younger of the two she recognized immediately.
"Patrick," she tried to say, but it came out more like, "P-tck"
"You're right, Pat," the other one said. "She is a pretty one."
Mary tried to speak again, but was still muffled by the strange hand. The hand moved away and she licked her lips.
"Who are you?" she asked, but somehow already knew the answer.
"Forgive my little brother's rudeness," the older one said. "I'm Don. I believe you already know our other companion."
The man behind her laughed. Mary felt her stomach flip-flop. He let go of her arm and pushed her toward Pat. Mary fell against him and was turned around so she could see who had been holding her. Her jaw fell slack.
Mike Donnelly grinned like a Cheshire cat. "Morning," he said. "How's Harry's head?"
They were about a mile away from the Homestead when Jim felt a strange chill.
"Do you feel that?" he asked.
Blair shook his head. "Feel what? The heat? Hell yeah, it's almost eighty degrees."
"No, the cold."
"Huh?" Blair stared at him.
"The air is cold," Jim said.
Jim's eyes flickered up to the rearview mirror. He let out a strangled cry and slammed on the brakes. He heard Blair yell, but didn't raise his eyes from the mirror.
Merry sat in the back seat. Her expression was pensive and full of worry. She looked straight at Jim, then turned and pointed behind her. Back the way they had come.
"Jim?" Blair asked.
Jim twisted in his seat to look behind him. The back seat was empty. He looked at the rearview mirror. Merry still looked at the road behind them. She turned once more to look at Jim, then faded from sight.
"What's going on?" Blair asked again.
"Something's wrong," Jim replied.
He made a quick three-point turn on the narrow road and headed back toward the Homestead.
Mike Donnelly held his shotgun across his lap, letting his legs swing against the cabinet doors below his feet. From his spot on the kitchen counter, he could keep an eye on Mary and see through the living room to the front door. Don and Pat were searching the house and making a good ruckus doing it. Mike cringed when something glass broke down the hall.
"I don't understand what you're looking for," Mary said. She sat in a chair by the kitchen tables, her hands folded tightly in her lap.
Her green eyes brimmed with tears, but so far she had refused to shed them. Mike admired her for that. Pam hadn't been nearly so calm.
"If it helps," Mike said. "This wasn't part of the plan. Of course, neither was those city cops showing up. Or you coming home. It all could have been so much easier."
Don came back into the kitchen, his face red from exertion. "It's not downstairs," he said. "Pat's rootin' around in the attic. She know where it is?"
"I haven't asked her yet," Mike said.
"What the hell you waitin' for, Mikey?" Don asked. "Gramps to come back from the dead and do it?"
Mary's eyes grew impossibly wider. She stared at Don, then at Mike. She didn't know how she knew or why she was so positive, but she did. Mary held Mike's gaze and said, "Sharon Simms was your mother."
Mike smiled. "Quite the little investigator. Yes, she was." He looked at Don. "Isn't that right, cousin?"
"Damn straight," Don said, stalking toward Mary. "Now where's the damn deed?"
"What deed?" Mary asked. The tears had dried from her eyes and a familiar blank haze was settling over them.
"The deed to the land your granddaddy stole from ours," Don said. His dark eyes blazed with anger. "Ain't nothin' worse than losin' yer best property to a man who can't mind his own business to start with. Some old friend, threatenin' to call the cops on 'im."
"One dollar," Mary said in a hollow voice. Puzzle pieces were falling into place. "Those missing girls. Frank was involved and Winston found out. He sold it for one dollar to shut him up." Frank had to sell it for something to make it a legal exchange.
Don fixed her with a dangerous glare. "That's our rightful land, missy. And you have seen the deed or you wouldn't know it went for a buck." He grasped Mary by the shoulders. "Where is it?"
Mary's eyes went to the table, but only the area map was there. She looked around as if not sure where it had, in fact, gotten to. "I don't know," she said.
Don's hands tightened on her shoulders and Mary yelped softly. "Don't lie to me, dammit!" Don yelled. "It weren't at Pam's house, we looked already. It has to be here!"
"Don, we'll find it," Mike said, reaching out to grab his cousin's arm.
"You killed her for the deed," Mary whispered.
Don shrugged Mike off. He raised his fist to hit her. Mary's head snapped up and she stared right into his eyes. Don froze. He screamed as though stung and let Mary go. He backpedaled so fast he slammed into the opposite wall.
Mike leapt off the counter and ran over to him. "What, dammit? What's wrong?"
Don stared at Mary with wild eyes, his jaw moving but no words coming out. Mary simply stared right back, her own eyes blank.
Jim parked the car at the entrance to the driveway, just behind the curve that hid the house from view of the road. He and Blair climbed out quickly and crept along the right side of the road near the bushes. Blair still didn't know what was going on, but he followed Jim out of instinct, ready to react at a moment's notice.
A muffled scream came from the house. It was distinctly male.
They glanced at each other briefly, then took off toward the house being careful to stay near the brush.
Mike shook Don hard, trying to get the babbling man to calm down. Don kept muttering about "her burnt face." Mike slapped him and he seemed to calm a bit, but kept darting fearful glances at Mary.
For her part, Mary sat in her chair, staring blankly at the wall above their heads.
Mike stood up and stalked over to Mary. "Where's the damn deed?" he bellowed. When Mary didn't reply, he struck her across the face with a closed fist. Her head snapped sideways, the corner of her lower lip split open. But she didn't speak.
Feet pounded on stairs. In seconds Pat raced into the kitchen. He took in the scene and stopped dead.
"What?" Mike asked.
"I found the deed," Pat said. "It was hidden in a tin upstairs. And somebody's comin'."
Jim and Blair dashed across the yard and crouched behind a row of bushes that lined the porch. Blair tried to calm the pounding in his chest. His gun was still in his luggage, but Jim held his against his thigh as he took a moment to listen.
"Four heartbeats in the kitchen," Jim whispered. "No, moving out of it. They aren't talking."
"They know we're here," Blair hissed.
Jim nodded. He pointed to the left of the house, then at Blair. Blair nodded.
With a silent look of "good luck," they split up.
Blair tiptoed along the edge of the porch, poking his head up every few feet to see if anyone was watching. He followed the porch around to the left side of the house. Halfway to the back, land abruptly ended and gave way to the bayou. Blair was about to climb up onto the porch when he felt the cold barrel of a shotgun against the side of his throat.
Jim had also reached the end of land on the other side of the house. He heard soft footsteps on the porch above him and crouched down. The footsteps moved steadily closer. The familiar scent of that cologne tickled his nostrils.
The footsteps passed him, moving slowly toward the front of the house.
He carefully climbed onto the porch. A young man with dark hair crept along the porch, a shotgun clutched awkwardly in one hand. Jim tiptoed up behind him. With the butt of his gun, he clocked the kid on the back of the head. He slumped forward, but Jim grabbed him before he could crash to the porch.
Blair swore at himself for the tenth time in a minute. His captor led him through the house toward the kitchen. The man appeared a bit shaken and his shotgun trembled in his hands ever so slightly.
"It's one of the cops," the man said as he pushed Blair into the kitchen.
Blair stumbled inside. He saw Mary first, sitting quietly in a chair.
"Good job, Don," a familiar voice said.
Blair slowly turned his head toward the voice, his jaw going slack. Mike Donnelly leaned against the wall by the half-ajar back door, half of his attention on the porch outside.
"Where's Pat?" Mike asked.
Don shrugged. "Outside."
"What...?" Blair muttered, absolutely flabbergasted. "Why...?"
"Both very good questions, Blair," Mike said. He walked toward Blair, his gaze deadly serious. "But I'm afraid they'll have to wait. Where's your partner?"
"We saved your life," was the only reply Blair could manage.
"True," Mike said. "And thank you for that." He lifted his shotgun and pointed it at Blair. "But my question first. Where's your partner?"
Jim had slipped inside through the partly open back door and had his gun trained on Mike's head. "Drop it," Jim said.
No one moved.
Footsteps scraped on the back porch. That distracted Don, whom Blair promptly tackled, knocking the shotgun out of his hands. Pat appeared behind Jim and hit him hard with a rock. Jim fell down hard. Mike turned and trained his gun on Jim.
With a fierce yell, Mary sprang to life and tackled Mike. They both went tumbling through the door and out onto the porch.
Blair scrambled for Don's shotgun, but Pat grabbed it first. Blair looked up in time to see the butt of the shotgun rushing toward his face. Stars exploded in his vision. He heard a single shotgun blast an instant before darkness overcame him.
Icy darkness surrounded her. The water should have been warm, but all she felt was cold. She tried to move her arms, her legs; she tried desperately to swim. She could not. She could only drift as her body sank down.
There was no sensation beyond the cold, no sight beyond the dark. And yet she was not afraid.
Comfortable warmth instantly replaced the cold. She strained to see into the murky depths of the water. A hand very much like her own reached out through the water. It stretched toward her, beckoning her.
She took it gratefully.
Mike fastened the last rope into a secure knot, then stood back to admire his handiwork. Jim and Blair were tied back-to-back in kitchen chairs, arms secured to their sides and ankles to the chair legs. He tested the bonds and they held tight.
"Sorry, guys," Mike said. "But I can't have you following us."
Pat and Don came inside from the back porch.
"Boat's ready," Don said.
Mike looked down at the two men he'd once called friends. Funny how life changed in an instant.
"We got what we came for," Pat said. "Now let's go, man."
"We're going," Mike said.
Don marched over to the kitchen stove. It was an old gas range. With a wide grin, he reached behind and tugged the gas line loose.
"What are you doing?" Pat asked.
"Getting rid of witnesses," Don said. With a pocket lighter, he lit a pile of old newspapers in the far corner of the kitchen.
"Wait a minute--" Mike protested.
Don marched over, waving his shotgun. "What? You want to leave them to identify us? We got all the evidence set to burn and I bet those state idiots don't know how to find their handcuffs, let alone who we are."
Mike swallowed, afraid he was going to be ill. But he pushed it aside and met Don's angry grin with one of his own.
"Fine," Mike said. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Jim struggled to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. His head pounded. It seemed to weigh fifty pounds. He managed to peel his eyelids apart a bit. Glaring sunlight forced them closed again, sending shards of pain through his skull. He tried to move and found himself tied down. Behind him he heard Blair's steady breathing. Jim tested his sight again, but found the kitchen blurry, the light too bright.
He wondered just how hard he'd been hit from behind. He barely remembered it.
Then he smelled the gas. Jim tried to focus on the oven, but his vision would not stop blurring. He could also smell fire, burning paper; gun powder and blood somewhere nearby.
"Blair?" Jim croaked. He tried to tap the back of Blair's neck with his head. "Blair, wake up. We have to get out of here."
Jim blinked, but it wasn't Blair. It was Mary. Her voice was everywhere, as if they were inside a bubble. Jim gazed around the kitchen, but the sunlight hurt his eyes. A shadow moved toward him.
"Mary," Jim said. "Can you get us loose?"
Jim closed his eyes for a minute, so he could just listen. A swishing sound like gentle footsteps on wood. Soft crackling as flames consumed the newspapers. Blair's even breathing behind him.
Jim felt the ropes that bound him fall away. Pushing away the stark pain in his head, Jim opened his eyes and stood up. He thought he saw Mary move in the corner of his eye, heading toward the back door. Jim lifted Blair from the other chair and slung him over his shoulder. He dashed out onto the porch, each step a bit of agony.
Jim looked around the porch for Mary, still unable to completely focus. "Mary?"
The kitchen blew up, blasting Jim and Blair off the porch and into the water.
Edge of Potter's Bog; 8:45 a.m.
The explosion echoed through the bayou. The little boat had not gotten too far. They felt a bit of the aftershock. The water all around them rippled and vibrated.
Mike craned his neck to look behind him. He could see smoke rising from the trees in the direction they had come. He felt sick inside. The land was important to him, but not at this cost.
They were still a mile from where they had hidden a larger boat to escape in. The roar of the explosion faded to an eerie silence, occasionally broken by the soft whirring of their motor. The bayou became darker the deeper they went. Cypress trees grew closer together, canopied by thick carpets of moss. The water was stagnant and gray. Insects flew in black clumps.
Pat and Don traded nervous glances, but they pressed onward. Just a little further.
A chilly breeze picked up. Mike looked out and saw three crocodiles watching them from a log ten feet away. He clutched his shotgun. Something bumped the side of the boat. Mike hazarded a look. Dozens of snakes curled and writhed in the water next to the boat.
"Sweet Jesus," Don muttered, looking at the snakes.
Pat squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make them go away. When he opened his eyes again, he glanced into the water. A burned, bloated corpse looked up at him from just under the surface. Charred eyelids flew open and a scorched hand reached up for him.
Pat shrieked and leapt backward, shaking the boat. He shrieked again and pointed his shotgun at it.
"Pat, what's wrong?" Don asked. At the same time Mike shouted, "Don't!"
"Stay away!" Pat yelled. He fired at the corpse, but his shot was low. It blew a hole in the side of the boat, letting in water.
"Dammit!" Don said. "What'd you do that for?"
But Pat was incoherent. Using their guns as paddles, Mike and Don tried to get to a cluster of trees before they sank. Pat tried to stand up. The boat rocked and Pat went flying into the water.
"Patrick!" Don shouted.
Two more splashes followed. Don watched in horror as two crocodiles converged on his screaming brother. Pat was pulled under before he could cry out.
"Pat!" Don shouted again.
Mike reached out and snagged a low tree branch. He managed to haul himself up onto it.
Don still stood in the half-sunken boat, staring at the water where Pat had been. He saw bubbles, then something rising to the surface. Don was terrified it would be Pat, but didn't look away. Something grasped his ankle and Don looked down. The burned face of a young woman grinned up at him, her equally scorched hand holding his foot. Don screamed and tried to pull away. The boat tipped. Don fell into the water, still screaming.
"Don!" Mike shouted.
Don floundered in the water, trying desperately to escape something that Mike couldn't see. He heard a splash and saw another crocodile swimming toward Don.
"Look out!" Mike shouted.
A soft hiss made Mike freeze. His entire body felt cold. Very slowly, Mike looked upward. On a branch just above his head, two water moccasins watched him with nearly human eyes. Green eyes. They hissed again.
"No," Mike said.
Below him, Don shouted in agony. The snakes struck.
Their dying screams echoed loudly through the bayou.
Jim and Blair sat in the small boat, coughing water from their lungs. The explosion had sent them both flying far out into the swamp, the jolt of the water waking Blair up. They had found each other and the boat. There were sirens in the distance. Heavy smoke from the fire stung their eyes and throats.
They paddled through the debris, calling Mary's name.
Jim tried to search for her heartbeat, but the roar of the flames made it next to impossible. His headache was still present, but his eyesight was no longer a blur. They scanned the surface of the water and the shoreline.
A glint of white caught Jim's attention.
"There," he said. Jim pointed to a spot near the far left bank.
They paddled over. The glint of white quickly materialized into a T-shirt. Mary floated near a piece of what had once been the kitchen table. When they were close enough, Jim reached out and pulled her into the boat. As he turned her over, his breath caught in her throat.
The front of her shirt was stained with red. Blood had stopped flowing from the shotgun wound in her chest. Jim reached for her limp wrist, but knew it was a futile gesture. There was no pulse, no heartbeat.
"This is wrong," Jim said. "She untied me. She saved our lives."
"Jim..." Blair began, then didn't know how to finish.
Jim turned and looked back to the burning house. The very far corner of the porch had not caught fire yet. Standing on the edge of it were Merry and Mary. They were holding hands and smiling at him. Jim blinked and they were gone.
They answered the questions as best they could. The State Police fired them off so quickly it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. The fire was under control, but everyone wanted to know who started it, where are they now, and why?
Why was the hardest one to answer.
The Essex tin had been lost in the blaze, so Jim and Blair had to reconstruct their investigation without props or evidence. They still weren't positive why Frank Simms had killed Merry and Winston Derkins, but suspected it was over the land deed. It was even harder to believe that Mike Donnelly had been in on the whole thing, until they discovered he was, indeed, related to Frank Simms.
It had all been a convoluted plan to get their land back. Mary, Jim and Blair had been three big monkey wrenches thrown into the works.
It was after six o'clock before the State Police found the remains of Pat and Don Simms, and Mike Donnelly. The land deed, though water-logged, had also been recovered.
Through it all, Jim kept thinking about his final image of the burning house. He hoped deep in his heart that it was finally over; that after twenty-seven years Merry could rest.
Backstone Cemetery; 10:04 a.m., Wednesday
Only six people attended Mary's funeral. It was an understated affair. A simple memorial service by the grave. A sandy-haired minister said a few words that offered little comfort to the five mourners.
Jim and Blair stood by Harry Gabelle, offering him their silent support. He had taken the news of Donnelly's betrayal very hard.
Rob and Beth Peterson stood off by themselves. Beth stood still as stone, holding her father's hand tightly and gazing blankly at the coffin. Rob swayed with the gentle breeze, his red-rimmed eyes spilling no more tears.
Jim was struck by how much Beth looked like her mother. Beth had, in fact, inherited the Homestead property. Rob hadn't decided what to do with it yet, but it was not a decision to be made today.
The minister said a final prayer, then walked over to speak with Rob privately.
Gabelle cleared this throat, then looked at Jim. "You boys solved a case I thought had been closed for years. But I just can't bring myself to thank you."
"You don't have to," Blair said. "I don't feel much like celebrating it myself."
"Hell of a vacation," Gabelle said.
Jim nodded. "Boredom is never part of our travel itinerary," he said.
"You headed home now?" Gabelle asked.
"Not yet," Jim said. "We still have to go back to New Orleans and finish up a few things. Then home."
"Yeah," Blair said. He missed the loft. "Home."
Beth stood quietly while her father spoke to the minister. Her green eyes were fixed on the smooth wooden box covered with flowers. She did not understand why they were there, or why the box was important.
Without knowing why, Beth found herself letting go of her father's hand. She toddled over to the wooden box. A pretty girl with red hair looked back at her in the reflective finish on the box. She reached out to touch the girl and the girl did the same.
"Mama," Beth whispered.