Production No. CVT702
Melanie and Lady Shelley
MEET THE CAST
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.