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.