After that first sighting, I never again saw the old white-haired man, but there had been others. Over the years, legions of beautiful, floating phantoms. Young, old, black, white, they drifted through the veil at dusk, a delicate parade of Southern history that both thrilled and terrified me.
After a while, those unearthly transients simply became a part of my world and I learned to steel myself against the frosty breaths at the back of my neck, the icy fingers that trailed through my hair and down my arms. Papa had been right to train and discipline me, but acceptance of the situation hadn’t alleviated my questions. I still didn’t understand why he and I could see the ghosts and Mama couldn’t.
“It’s our cross to bear,” he explained one day, keeping his gaze averted as he weeded a grave.
That didn’t satisfy me. “Can my real mother see them?”
Papa still didn’t look up. “The woman who raised you is your real mother.”
“You know what I mean.” We never talked about my adoption even though I’d known about it for a long time. I had a lot of questions about that, too, but I’d learned to keep them to myself.
Papa had already started to shut down so I went back to the ghosts. “Why do they want to touch us?”
“I’ve already told you. They crave our warmth.”
“But why?” Absently, I plucked a lone dandelion and blew the seeds into the wind. “Why, Papa?”
“Think of them as vampires,” he said with a weary sigh. “Instead of blood, they suck out our warmth, our vitality, sometimes our will to live. And they leave nothing behind but a living, breathing husk.”
I seized on the one word that made any sense to me, even though on some level I knew he was speaking metaphorically. “But, Papa, vampires aren’t real.”
“Maybe not.” He rocked back on his heels, his eyes taking on a haunted, faraway glaze that chilled me to the bone. “But I’ve seen things in my time…unspeakable desecrations…”
My terrified gasp brought him momentarily out of his gloomy reverie and he placed his hand on mine, squeezing my fingers in reassurance. “It’s nothing for you to worry about, child. You have nothing to fear, so long as you follow the rules.”
But his words had filled me with a formless dread. “Promise?”
He nodded, but turned away quickly, his careworn face shadowed with secrets…
Over the years, I’d followed Papa’s rules faithfully. My emotions were well-schooled, always under control, and I suppose that was why I found my response to John Devlin so troubling.
He’d come up behind me in the cemetery and must have said my name, but I was so lost in thought, I didn’t hear him. When he placed his hand on my shoulder to get my attention, the hair rose up on my scalp like the aftermath of an electrical jolt. I jerked away from him without thinking.
He looked taken aback by my reaction. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s just…”
“This place? Yeah, it’s pretty creepy. I would think you’re used to that, though.”
“Not all cemeteries are creepy,” I said. “Most of them are beautiful.”
“If you say so.” Something in his tone—a cold, brittle undercurrent—made me think of his ghosts. I wondered again who they were and what they’d been to him in life.
He was still peering down at me curiously. For some reason, his height hadn’t been so obvious to me earlier, but now he seemed to tower over me.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I guess I’m still a little jumpy from earlier. And now this.” I nodded toward the body on the ground, but I kept my gaze trained on Devlin. I didn’t want to stare at the corpse. I didn’t want to put a face with a restless, covetous ghost that I might one day see wandering through the veil.
“I lead a dull life,” I said without irony. “I don’t think I’m cut out for crime scenes.”
“There are a lot of things in this world to be afraid of, but a dead body isn’t one of them.”
Spoken like a man who knew things, I thought with a shiver. His voice was the kind that made one think of dark places. The kind that made the skin ripple along the backbone.
“I’m sure you’re right,” I murmured, searching the mist behind him, wondering if his ghosts might have slipped through the gates after all. That would explain the unnatural static that seemed to surround him and the sense of foreboding I felt at his nearness.
But no. There was nothing behind him in the dark.
It’s this place.
I could feel the negative energy clutching at me like the ivy roots that burrowed into the cracks and crevices of the mausoleums, the kudzu that wound tightly around the tree trunks, slowly strangling the magnificent old live oaks for which the cemetery had been named. I wondered if Devlin felt it, too.
He tilted his head and moonlight washed across his face, softening his gaunt features and giving me yet another teasing glimpse of the man he’d once been. I could see the gleam of mist in his hair and on the tips of his eyelashes. His cheekbones were high and prominent, his thick eyebrows perfectly symmetrical and a fine complement to the strong curve of his nose. His eyes were dark, but I’d not seen them in enough light to tell their true color.
He was handsome, charismatic and intensely focused, and he intrigued me almost as much as he disturbed me. I couldn’t stare at him for long without hearing the echo of my father’s third rule inside my head:
Keep your distance from those who are haunted.
I drew a breath of moist air and tried to shake off his strange spell. “Have you found out anything about the victim?”
Even to my own ears, my voice sounded tentative and I wondered if he would pick up on my unease. He was probably used to a certain amount of discomfort in his presence. He was a cop, after all. A cop with a very complicated past, I was beginning to suspect.
“We don’t know who she is yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
So the victim was female. “Do you know how she died?”
He paused, his gaze sliding away before he answered. “We won’t know conclusively until after the autopsy.”
It wasn’t so much what he said as what he didn’t say. And the way he hadn’t been able to meet my eyes. What was he hiding from me? What terrible things had been done to that poor woman?
And then I thought of all the hours I’d spent working alone in this cemetery. What if the killer had happened along at one of those times?
As if reading my mind, Devlin said, “I can tell you this much. She wasn’t killed here. Her body was brought to the cemetery for disposal.”
Was that meant to comfort me?
“Why here, I wonder?”
He shrugged. “It’s a likely spot. This place has been abandoned for years and the ground over the old graves is soft. Makes for easy digging. Cover it up with a few dead leaves and some debris and a casual observer would never even notice the soil had been disturbed.”
“But then the rain set in.”
His gaze returned to me. “The rain set in and you came along. Even if the dirt hadn’t washed away, odds are you would have noticed the fresh digging when you cleaned up the grave.”
Call me a coward, but I was glad it hadn’t gone down that way. “Who found the body?”
“A couple of students climbed over the wall for a little private party. They spotted the exposed head and torso and reported it to campus police. Dr. Ashby notified Charleston PD, and then met us at the gate to let us in.” There was a slight shift in his voice. “She mentioned that you also have a key.”