Hands steady, I paid my check and left the restaurant without looking back.
Once outside, I allowed myself to relax as I walked back along White Point Gardens, in no particular hurry to seek the sanctuary of my home. Whatever spirits had managed to slip through the veil at dusk were already among us and as long as I remained vigilant until the sun came up, I needn’t cower from the icy drafts and swirling gray forms.
The mist had thickened. The Civil War cannons and statues in the park were invisible from the walkway, the bandstand and live oaks nothing more than vague silhouettes. But I could smell the flowers, that luscious blend of what I had come to think of as the Charleston scent—magnolia, hyacinth and Confederate jasmine.
Somewhere in the darkness, a foghorn sounded and out in the harbor, a lighthouse flashed warnings to the cargo ships traversing the narrow channel between Sullivan’s Island and Fort Sumter. As I stopped to watch the light, an uneasy chill crept over me. Someone was behind me in the fog. I could hear the soft yet unmistakable clop of leather soles against the seawall.
The footfalls stopped suddenly and I turned with a breathless shiver. For a long moment, nothing happened and I began to think I might have imagined the sound. Then he emerged from the veil of mist, sending the blood out of my heart with a painful contraction.
Tall, broad-shouldered and dressed all in black, he might have stepped from the dreamy hinterland of some childhood fable. I could barely make out his features, but I knew instinctively that he was handsome and brooding. The way he carried himself, the almost painful glare of his eyes through the mist, sent icy needles stinging down my spine.
He was no ghost, but dangerous to me nonetheless and so compelling I couldn’t tear my gaze away as he moved toward me. And now I could see water droplets glistening in his dark hair and the gleam of a silver chain tucked inside the collar of his dark shirt.
Behind him, translucent and hardly discernible from the mist, were two ghosts, that of a woman and a little girl. They were both looking at me, too, but I kept my gaze trained on the man.
“Yes?” Since my blog had become so popular, I was occasionally approached by strangers who recognized me from website photos or from the infamous ghost video. The South, particularly the Charleston area, was home to dozens of avid taphophiles, but I didn’t think this man was a fan or a fellow aficionado. His eyes were cold, his manner aloof. He had not sought me out to chitchat about headstones.
“I’m John Devlin, Charleston PD.” As he spoke, he hauled out his wallet and presented his ID and badge, which I obligingly glanced at even though my heart had started to beat an agonizing staccato.
A police detective!
This couldn’t be good.
Something terrible must have happened. My parents were getting on in years. What if one of them had had an accident or taken ill or…
Tamping down an unreasonable panic, I slipped my hands into the pockets of my trench coat. If something had happened to Mama or Papa, someone would have called. This wasn’t about them. This was about me.
I waited for an explanation as those lovely apparitions hovered protectively around John Devlin. From what I could see of the woman’s features, she’d been stunning, with high cheekbones and proudly flaring nostrils that suggested a Creole heritage. She wore a pretty summer dress that swirled like gossamer around her long, slender legs.
The child looked to have been four or five when she died. Dark curls framed her pale face as she floated at the man’s side, reaching out now and then to clutch at his leg or tap on his knee.
He seemed oblivious to their presence, though he was clearly haunted. It showed in his face, in the eyes that were as hooded as they were piercing, and I couldn’t help wondering about his relationship to the ghosts.
I kept my eyes focused on his face. He was watching me, too, with an air of suspicion and superiority that could make dealing with the police an unpleasant ordeal, even over something as trivial as a parking ticket.
“What do you want?” I asked, though I hadn’t meant for the query to sound so blunt. I’m not a confrontational person. Years of living with ghosts had whittled away my spontaneity, leaving me overly disciplined and reserved.
Devlin moved a step closer and my hands curled into fists inside my coat pockets. A thrill chased across my skull and I wanted to tell him to keep his distance, don’t come any closer. I said nothing, of course, as I braced myself against the frigid breath of his phantoms.
“A mutual acquaintance suggested I get in touch with you,” he said.
“And who would that be?”
“Camille Ashby. She thought you might be able to help me out.”
“A police matter.”
Now I was more curious than cautious—which made me also foolish.
Dr. Camille Ashby was an administrator at Emerson University, an elite, private college with powerful alumni that included some of the most prominent lawyers, judges and businessmen in South Carolina. Recently, I’d accepted a commission to restore an old cemetery located on university property. One of Dr. Ashby’s stipulations was that I not post any pictures on my blog until the restoration was complete.
I understood her concern. The dismal condition of the graveyard wasn’t a favorable reflection on a university that espoused the traditions and ethics of the old South. As Benjamin Franklin had put it: One can tell the morals of a culture by the way they treat their dead. Indeed.
What I didn’t yet know was why she’d sent John Devlin to find me.
“I understand you’ve been working in Oak Grove Cemetery,” he said.
I suppressed a shudder.
Oak Grove was one of those rare graveyards that evoked uneasiness, that literally made my skin crawl. The only other time I’d experienced a similar sensation was while visiting a small cemetery in Kansas that had been dubbed one of the seven gateways to hell.
I adjusted my collar against the glacial prickles at my nape. “What’s this about?”
He ignored my question and asked one of his own. “When was the last time you were there?”
“A few days ago.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Five days,” he murmured. “You’re sure about that?”
“Yes, of course. A big storm blew in that night and it’s been raining off and on ever since. I’ve been waiting for the ground to dry out.”
“Camille…Dr. Ashby said you’ve been photographing the graves.” He waited for my nod. “I’d like to take a look at those shots.”
Something about his tone, about this whole conversation put me on the defensive. Or maybe it was his ghosts. “Can you tell me why? And I’d also like to know how you found me tonight.”
“You mentioned your dinner plans to Dr. Ashby.”
“I may have named the restaurant, but I didn’t tell her I’d be taking an after-dinner stroll, because I didn’t know it myself at the time.”
“Call that part a hunch,” he said.
A hunch…or had he followed me from the Pavilion?
“Dr. Ashby has my number. Why didn’t you just call me?”
“I tried that. No answer.”
Well, yes, there was that. I’d turned off my phone for the evening. Still, I didn’t like any of this. John Devlin was a haunted man and that made him a dangerous man in my world.
He was also persistent and perhaps intuitive, so the quicker I rid myself of him the better.
“Why don’t you give me a call first thing in the morning?” I said in a brisk, dismissive tone. “I’m sure whatever it is can wait until then.”
“No, I’m afraid it can’t. This has to be done tonight.”