Turning from the window, I faced my empty house.
Light from the wall sconces welcomed me through the arched doorway into a long, narrow hallway. A large parlor furnished with thrift store antiques opened to the right. To the left, a curved staircase led up to a bolted door that separated the first-and second-story apartments.
My office was a converted sunporch all the way at the back of the house, just off the kitchen. In the mornings, a buttery light shone through the long windows and I liked to start my day out there with a cup of tea and my laptop.
Tonight, nothing but darkness lay beyond the windows.
I turned my back on all those shadows as I sat down at the desk, opened my laptop and compressed the Oak Grove folder so that I could send all the images in one email to the address on the card Devlin had given to me earlier.
I sat back and let out a breath. My part in this whole disturbing mess was over. I’d done everything I possibly could to help the police.
But even after I pressed the send button, I still couldn’t shake a lingering unease. Unless the killer knew that Devlin was now in possession of those images, he might still consider me a threat. And he couldn’t know that I’d sent the images unless he was watching me at that very moment.
I shot a tentative glance over my shoulder.
No one was there, of course. No eyes peering in from the darkness. No face pressed to the glass. Just the faintest hint of condensation creeping over the panes from the air-conditioning.
As I watched, tiny lines appeared in the rime like ghostly etchings, but there was nothing supernatural about the cracks. Nothing more sinister than a cold surface meeting the warmer outside air.
An unpleasant smell clung to my raincoat, and I decided the odor I’d brought home from the cemetery might be facilitating my apprehension.
Rising, I hurried into the bathroom, stripped off all my clothing and stuffed everything into a garbage bag. Then I got into the shower and scrubbed my skin and hair for a good twenty minutes, until every last bit of graveyard grime had been washed down the drain.
Wrapped in a towel, I padded down the hallway to my bedroom and pulled on cotton pajamas and a pair of thick socks, because the wood floor felt cold beneath my feet.
I adjusted the thermostat, then went back to the kitchen to make some tea. Carrying the cup out to the office, I sat down at my desk and once again opened the laptop.
The combination of soothing chamomile and a long shower took the edge off my anxiety and I started to relax and work on a new blog article—“Graveyard Lilacs: The Divine Smell of Death.”
The cemetery certainly hadn’t smelled so divine tonight, I thought with a grimace.
Unable to gather my thoughts, I gave up and went back to the Oak Grove images.
Using a full-length mirror to reflect light, I’d shot almost every grave in the front section before the rain had set in. Creating a visual prerestoration record of the cemetery was always the first step. Then came the research. The foundation of a successful renewal always lay in the archives. If no directory or map could be found, county death records, church registries and family Bibles had to be meticulously scoured, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. I kept at it for however long it took, because there was nothing so lonely as an unmarked grave.
Scrolling through the JPEGs, I located the victim’s burial site by searching for the monuments and landmarks I’d memorized earlier at the cemetery. I enlarged the image to full screen and zoomed in. Using a magnifier, I went over the grave carefully, scrutinizing every pixel.
Finding no evidence the soil had been disturbed at the time I’d taken the photograph, I concluded the killer had buried the body sometime after I left the cemetery late Friday afternoon and before the storm hit at midnight.
I did notice one interesting detail, however.
Leaning forward, I absently rubbed my thumb against the polished stone I wore on a chain around my neck as I studied the image.
The headstone faced away from the grave. This in and of itself wasn’t so unusual. Families sometimes requested this arrangement so that the inscription could be read without treading upon the grave. But whether the headstone placement had anything to do with why the killer had chosen that particular grave to dispose of the body, I had no idea.
Curling one leg underneath me, I moved on to the next shot, which was the face of the headstone. On a yellow legal pad, I jotted down the name, the epitaph, year of birth and death, and made note of the imagery—a weeping willow bough entwined with morning glory vines and a feather floating downward toward the grave.
Then I opened the corresponding document file and scanned through the information I’d collected on the deceased, one Mary Frances Pinckney. She’d died of scarlet fever in 1887 at the age of fourteen.
Nothing unusual there. I went back to my notes and reread the epitaph:
The midnight stars weep upon her silent grave,
Dead but dreaming, this child we could not save.
The verse triggered a moment of melancholia, but there was nothing particularly strange about it. More than likely, the grave had been selected randomly by the killer. Or because it was located away from the walls and gates so that it couldn’t be easily spotted by a casual onlooker.
I sat there for the longest time, studying those photographs and worrying about my stolen briefcase. Worrying about my reaction to John Devlin and wondering if somehow my father’s rules were being tested in ways I didn’t yet understand. But mostly I thought about the dead woman who had been dumped in an old grave at Oak Grove, left there in anonymity, without benefit of ceremony or marker. The callous burial bothered me almost as much as the murder. It spoke to a lack of conscience, a lack of humanity that conjured deep dread.
He was out there, that monster. Stalking the streets, perhaps with the scent of his next victim already burning inside him.
The scent of his next victim…
Absorbed in the images, I’d barely registered the fragrance that had invaded my office.
Now I closed my eyes and drew it in.
Not graveyard lilacs, but jasmine…
So sweet and pervasive, I wondered for a moment if I’d left a window open. The vines were everywhere in the backyard. Sometimes the cloying smell became unbearable at night.
But this scent was different. Deeper, headier, with an undertone of something I didn’t want to contemplate.
As I got up to check the windows, I heard the soft tinkle of the wind chimes on the patio.
Strange, because there wasn’t a breeze.
Alarmed, I reached back and closed my laptop.
I stood shivering in the dark, gazing past my reflection in the glass to the patio and garden beyond.
Through the fragile layers of mist, I could see the soft glow of moonflowers and gardenias and the starry spill of the jasmine over the pike fence. An old live oak guarded the darkest corner of the garden, and a swing hung like a childhood memory from one of the gnarled branches.
It swayed gently, as if someone had just gotten out of the wooden seat. Back and forth…back and forth…back and forth…
The creak of the rusted chains lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.
Someone was out there walking around in the garden. A shoulder had brushed against the wind chimes. An idle hand had rocked the swing.
I wanted to believe that Macon Dawes had come home from the hospital and was taking a midnight stroll in the garden to unwind. But wouldn’t I have heard his old clunker pull into the driveway?