I inched forward on my belly, trying not to inhale any more of the musty, stagnant air than necessary. The darkness was so complete that it snuffed out the frail, yellow beam of my Dollar General flashlight just a couple of feet in front of me.
Something skittered to my left and I nearly screamed.
Please don’t be a rat. Please don’t be a rat, I thought, an instant before running my face into a huge, sticky spider web. I gave a cry of revulsion and tried to brush it off, rapping my knuckles painfully across a wooden beam in the process.
Mama Cat, you owe me.
Two weeks ago, I’d noticed the very pregnant cat slipping under my newly purchased house.
Closer inspection had revealed a broken vent screen. I had tried to coax her out with food and milk, but Mama Cat had managed to elude me so far. I’d been unable to fix the screen because I’d never known for sure when the cat was under the house and didn’t want to trap her. A few days ago, I’d heard a high-pitched mewling under the floor beneath my bed.
October nights in Middle Tennessee had grown colder, and I worried about the new babies. Those worries had increased when I’d seen Mama Cat today, limping and looking torn and bloody. Apparently, there was no animal control in this town, so after making a few fruitless phone calls, I decided to go after them myself—a decision I was regretting a little more with every inch I crawled.
I spied a sliver of light ahead, marking both the broken vent screen and the area beneath my bedroom, which was a few feet from the vent.
A soft mewling sound came from that area and I played my flashlight in its direction.
“Oh, Mama Cat,” I murmured.
The gray cat lay on its side, unmoving. A kitten crawled on its belly near its mother’s feet, much like I myself was crawling. Another kitten lay still beside it.
Tentatively, I reached for Mama Cat. The animal was stiff and cold to the touch. As gently as I could, I picked up the cat’s body and wiggled to the vent opening. I placed the cat outside and did the same for the two dead kittens I found. I was contemplating what to do with the survivors when I saw it.
“What’s that doing under here?” I muttered, playing my flashlight beam over it.
It appeared to be a tackle box. Maybe I could put the survivors in it. At least it would shelter them from the wind until I could crawl back outside. I unfastened the latches and opened it to reveal a tray of hooks and bobbers. Wiggling it loose, I set it aside. The bottom of the box was empty save for a box of fishing line and three black film canisters. Picking one up, I shook it and was pleasantly surprised to hear it rattle. Who knew what was on there, or if it was still good, but I loved stuff like that. Last summer I’d bought some film at an estate sale that had developed into some amazing shots. But I’d worry about that later. Right now, I had babies to rescue.
An exhaustive search turned up two survivors, though one of them didn’t look so well. Gently, I placed them in the tackle box and set it outside through the vent. Then I exited the crawl space as quickly as possible.
Outside, I took a deep breath and dusted myself off before running around the side of the house to retrieve the tackle box. I would give Mama Cat and the kittens a proper burial, but first I had to get these babies warm.
Inside the house, I placed the tackle box on the kitchen table and ran to get a towel. Swaddling the kittens together, I held them to my chest as I called the local vet. The office was closed, with a message that said it would open at 8 a.m. My next resort was my sister, Maddie, who was a third year vet student in Knoxville. She’d know what to do.
Soon, I had the kittens settled in a box with a heating pad and was on my way to the grocery store in hopes of finding powdered goat milk and Karo syrup.
A couple of hours later, after I’d gotten the kittens to take a few ounces of formula, I buried Mama Cat and the two kittens under the maple tree in the backyard. I set the alarm on my phone for the next feeding and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
The tackle box sat on the table, forgotten in all the excitement. I made my coffee and sat down to give it a closer look. On the inside of the lid, written carefully in black sharpie, was a name and address.
1232 STAGECOACH ROAD
TRACY CITY, TN 37387
Interesting. That wasn’t the previous owner’s name or the address of the house. The seller had been the county judge, Carsen Marlow, and this was Ramsey Lake Road.
“So, Mr. Johnston,” I mused. “What’s your tackle box doing under my house?”
I withdrew the three canisters of film, then noticed the edge of paper sticking out from underneath the box of fishing line.
It was a note, folded over and written in blue ink on a paper napkin.
In the event of my death, give this film to Stacey Reid, THP.
– Bill Johnston
I pulled my phone from my back pocket and googled Bill Johnston, Tracy City, TN.
The first result was a newspaper headline:
LOCAL MAN UNRESPONSIVE AFTER BEING PULLED FROM RAMSEY LAKE SUNDAY NIGHT.
Startled, I glanced out my kitchen window at the sparkling blue water beyond my back deck.
Bill Johnston, age 24, an employee of Valliere Industries, was unresponsive at the scene Sunday night after an apparent fishing accident. His aluminum boat capsized, dumping him into the frigid waters of Ramsey Lake. Mr. Johnston was not wearing a life jacket. A passerby noticed the overturned craft and jumped in to rescue him. CPR was performed until emergency medical crews arrived. Alcohol did not appear to be a factor.
I didn’t see any further updates. The article was dated November 19, 2015, and it appeared to be a weekly paper. I searched the archives for the next edition of the paper, but a new headline had stolen the town’s attention by that Thanksgiving.
COUNTY SHERIFF SHOT, KILLED, DURING TRAFFIC STOP. SUSPECT REMAINS AT LARGE.
Yikes, so much for peaceful, small town living.
My search yielded no further information on Bill Johnston. It did, however, show a link to his Facebook page, so I clicked on it.
Whoa, I thought again. Mr. Johnston, you were a hottie.
His profile picture beamed at me, vivid blue eyes twinkling beneath backwards ball cap, black hair curling around his ears. Shirtless and lanky in faded jeans and boots, he held a large bass up for the camera.
The profile was partially locked, but I could see some information and pictures. Bill looked happy and carefree in most photos. Fishing, four wheelers and bonfires—typical country boy life. In several of the pictures, he had his arm around a pretty blonde. His info said he was in a relationship with Aubrey Leah, but her profile link was dead.
I scrolled through all the posts I could see. The most recent was three years ago, from a guy named Garrett Langston. It read simply, I miss you every day.
The last post Bill himself had made was five years ago, a few weeks before his accident. It was a pic of him and the Langston boy, sitting in an aluminum boat displaying a stringer of bluegill to the photographer.
I thought about his note. Had it been an accident? He’d obviously been scared of something. What 24-year-old would leave a note like that, and why had his tackle box been hidden under this house? What was on that film?
The first result when I googled THP was the Tennessee Highway Patrol in Cookeville, Tennessee. Why would Bill want the film delivered to a State Trooper and not the local sheriff? A Facebook search for Stacey Reid yielded no close results. I even tried alternate spellings in case Bill had misspelled either name.
My phone alarm chimed, reminding me to feed the kittens. One little guy still looked pretty weak, and he wouldn’t take much formula at all. I gently placed the kitten back with its sibling, then went to wash my hands and resume my search for the state trooper.
A sharp rapping on my front door startled me. I’d lived here a month and the only visitor I’d had was the UPS man. My house was more isolated than the others on Ramsey Lake, and I’d been grateful for the solitude as I worked on the book I was writing. I’d purchased this house on a whim, remembering the area from my college trips to the Bonnaroo music festival. It was both close enough to visit my parents’ house in Huntsville, Alabama, and distant enough to give me some space.
I peeked through the glass pane to see my sister’s smiling face.
“Maddie!” I cried, as I threw open the door and embraced her. “What are you doing here?”
Maddie grinned. “Well, it sounded like you were having a cat-astrophe—”
“Besides, I haven’t gotten to see your new house, and it’s Friday, the weekend of Samhain—”
Maddie rolled her eyes and moved past me, duffle bag in tow.
“Samhain. The time of year when the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest.”
“Oh! Halloween,” I said, just to irritate my sister. Maddie fancied herself an empath, had always liked tarot cards and ghost stories. If she’d said that she’d decided to read palms for a living rather than be a veterinarian, I would’ve scarcely been surprised. Our father, on the other hand…
“No, not Halloween—”
“Great!” I interrupted, before Maddie could launch into an explanation. “Because I have a ghost we need to contact.”
I motioned for Maddie to follow me to the living room, where I had the kittens set up, and told her about Bill Johnston and the tackle box as we walked.
Maddie grabbed my arm, eyes huge. “Jericho! You need to take that to the police. He might have been murdered!”
“I’m going to try to find the Reid guy he wanted me to find. There’s a reason he wrote that note.”
“A fishing accident, but his tackle box was under this house? A house that didn’t belong to him? Sounds really strange to me.”
I shrugged. “Maybe he had more than one tackle box. And maybe this house belonged to a relative. Who knows?”
“What about the film? Should we get it developed?”
“Maddie, God knows what’s on that film. I’m not too anxious to hand it over to a Walmart clerk.”
Maddie reached down into the box and gently examined the kittens. “Poor baby,” she cooed, touching the pads of the frail one’s feet and examining its mouth. “I don’t know about this one, Sis. He’s struggling.”
The other one was scooting around, moving away from the heating pad. It mewled up at her and Maddie grinned. “This one is a scrapper!” she said, using one of our dad’s favorite terms as she stroked its head with her fingertip. “We keep this one on a feeding schedule, and I think it’ll be just fine.”
I left Maddie playing with the kitten and went to retrieve my laptop. I opened Bill Johnstone’s Facebook page.
“Yowza!” Maddie said. “You finally introduce me to a good-looking man, and he’s dead.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just my luck, huh?”
Maddie scrolled through his posts, then she looked up at me, eyes gleaming.
“I have a fun idea. We can have a seance! Tomorrow night is the best possible time to do that.”
I laughed. “A seance. Really.”
“What would it hurt?” Maddie asked. “When was the last time you fed these guys, and do you have a Ouija board?”
“I have an alarm set for the next feeding. It’s not time for that yet. And no, I’m fresh out of Ouija boards.”
Maddie pursed her lips at the sarcasm. “Where’s the nearest Target? We need to go get one.”
“About an hour to Murfreesboro, or an hour to Hixson. I don’t want to leave the kittens that long.”
“I think I can make one,” Maddie said. “But I’m going to need your laptop and printer. Do you have a board game here of any kind?”
“There’s an old Monopoly board in the closet, I think.”
“Perfect!” Maddie said. “White and black candles? Sage?”
I laughed. “I can probably find the candles, but the only sage you’re gonna get is the ground sage in my spice rack.”
“Ugh. Why did you move to the sticks?”
“I like it here,” I said. “It’s quiet. And I don’t have the guest room set up yet. You can sleep in my bed, and I’ll take the couch.”
“We can sleep together,” Maddie said. “It’ll be like when we were kids again!”
I frowned. “As I remember, that was waking up with your feet on me and all the covers hogged over to your side.”
Maddie smacked a kiss in my direction. “See? Fun.”
Maddie was fun. I watched her studiously taping the Ouija template to an old Monopoly board, then cackled at her choice of a planchette—a Whiskey Dix shot glass.
“No telling what we’re about to summon!”
Maddie’s grin widened, and she laughed too. “I have so many things I want to say to that …”
Maddie punched my arm. “I’m scared you’ll pass out when I burn the sage, because you’re the bad energy around here.”
After the kittens’ next feeding, I made my cream cheese spaghetti bake—Maddie’s favorite dish—while Maddie resumed the search for Stacey Reid.
“I’ve got nothing,” she announced, some thirty minutes later. “I’m going back to Handsome Bill’s profile.”
“Would you like some wine?”
“I never turn down wine,” Maddie said, then, “I wish I could access his friends. This whole profile. But we do have one … Crap, his Facebook link is dead, too, and I don’t see another. Hang on, hang on … Oh, my God, Jericho. Look at this!”
I looked over Maddie’s shoulder and nearly dropped the glass of wine I held. Garrett Langston smiled at us from a post on the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association page for his swearing in ceremony.
“Grundy County. That’s this county, right? Garrett Langston is your sheriff?”
I looked at her, dumbfounded. “I-I don’t know?”
“You don’t know who your sheriff is?” Maddie asked, frowning.
“Do you know the sheriff of Knoxville?” I retorted.
“There are more than ten people in Knox county.”
I mulled it over. “This could be a good thing, right? Garrett was his best friend. He commented that he missed Bill every day. If we can’t find Trooper Reid, maybe we should take the film to him?”
“Maybe,” Maddie said, as she searched other social media platforms. “Dammit, no Insta, no Twitter … what do people do to waste time around here?” She glanced up from the screen. “I really would like to know what was on that film before we turn it over to anyone.”
“Maybe ole Bill will tell us himself tomorrow night,” I joked.
Maddie sniffed and lifted her chin. “Maybe he will. Don’t knock it till we try it.”
I dreamed I was drowning. I sank deeper and deeper, the surface light fading. I couldn’t move, couldn’t kick. Suddenly, something grabbed my arm. I opened my mouth and tried to scream as I was dragged toward the top, toward the light.
“Wake up,” someone said, and I glanced at Bill Johnston’s handsome face. “Wake up, Jericho!”
“Wake up, Jericho!” Maddie groaned, and shook her arm. “It’s your turn to feed the kittens. Cut off your alarm.”
I tried to shake off my dream as I stumbled toward the bathroom. Then I got the dropper and formula to feed the kittens. I had to force the frail one to eat at all.
I kept thinking of Bill Johnston. That dream had felt so real. Walking to the kitchen, I got a glass of water and drank it standing at the sink, staring out at the lake. I’d once thought it so beautiful, but now it looked stark. Sad.
“I will find out what happened to you,” I promised.
Both kittens made it through the night, and I was glad Maddie was here to alternate the two hour feedings. They hadn’t gotten to spend much time together since Maddie had left for UT, but this was almost like old times. Maddie helped me paint the utility room, then we made caramel apples and ate them on the front porch. As expected, no trick or treaters ventured out this far.
“I called the highway patrol while you were feeding last. They don’t have an Officer Stacey Reid,” I said. “I tried to get the desk operator to look up records from five years ago, but she told me I’d have to come to the office in Cookeville to fill out a request.”
Maddie looked at the darkening sky and grinned. “Maybe Bill will tell us himself. It’s time!”
I laughed at the gleam in my sister’s eyes. There were probably worse ways to spend a Halloween night. “Let’s go!” I said, standing. “Where are we going to do this? The living room? Bedroom?”
“No!” Maddie said. “Not in the house. I was thinking the gazebo down by the lake?”
We gathered the homemade ouija board, shot glass, lighter and bowl of sage. Maddie rattled off instructions as we walked down the pathway to the gazebo. “Only one of us should ask the board questions. I think it should be you, since it’s your house and you’re the one who found the tackle box. Also, I’m more sensitive to paranormal things, and might attract more spirits than just Bill.”
I snorted. “Are you telling me that even dead men are more attracted to you than me? Is that what you’re saying?”
Maddie laughed and tugged my red hair. “It’s really because you’re a ginger and have no soul. Totally safe.”
“Ha! Works for me, because if we summon something as pretty as Bill Johnston, alive or dead, I call dibs. We can be like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in that movie, making pottery.”
Maddie giggled and started singing, “Ohhhhhh my love, my darling …. Rule #2. No matter what happens, we don’t take our fingertips off the planchette—”
“Shot glass,” I interrupted, and Maddie glared at me.
“We don’t take our fingertips off the planchette until we say Goodbye on the board. That closes the door, keeps anything else from coming through. And don’t be asking smart ass questions that will make the spirit mad.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Moi?”
“Yes, you. I know you think this is a joke, but keep an open mind. What can it hurt?”
We moved the bench in the gazebo to the center and lit the candles. Black to absorb negative energy, white to attract positive energy, according to Maddie. Then she lit the sage with a long barbecue lighter, which made me giggle.
“Whiskey Dix shot glass and barbecue lighters. If we summon some redneck spirit named Earl, I’m going to tell him you’re single.”
“Shut your face,” Maddie said. “Time to get serious.”
She sat sideways on the bench and motioned me to sit opposite her. We rested the board on our knees and placed our fingertips on the overturned shot glass. The sky rumbled and we giggled.
“Ohhh!” I whispered. “It was a dark and stormy night …”
“I said serious,” Maddie hissed, but she was smiling too. “Let’s move the planchette to hello and you ask for Bill. A few times, if necessary. Please just keep an open mind and relax.”
I nodded and took a deep breath. Together, we moved the planchette to the center and I said, “Hello. Bill Johnston. Are you here? I found something that belonged to you. Can you talk to us?”
I waited a few moments and tried again. “Bill Johnston, of 1232 Stagecoach Road. Can you hear us? We want to help you. I found the note in your tackle box. Did someone hurt you? Bill Johnston, can you hear me?”
The candles winked out. Maddie looked at me. I frowned and mouthed, “Wind.”
The wind was picking up, and the streetlights had kicked on, but I still shivered. I didn’t know what to say, so I softly repeated his name. “Bill Johnston, can you hear me?”
The planchette twitched on the board.
“Did you do that?” I hissed at Maddie, who shook her head no and gestured to the planchette. Clearly, her fingertips were barely grazing the planchette, as were mine. There was no indication her sister was manipulating the board.
“Bill, is that you?” I asked.
The planchette twitched under our fingertips like something alive. It moved to No.
I stared at it, dumbfounded, until Maddie whispered, “Ask who it is, then.”
“Who is this?” I asked the board.
The planchette jerked to H. It moved swiftly, making my heart thump in my chest.
“H-E-N-R-Y. Henry,” I whispered.
The planchette jerked to Yes.
“Henry, did you die in this lake?” I asked, shrugging at Maddie.
The planchette began spelling.
“R-O-A-D. Road. You died here on the road? An auto accident?”
The planchette rocketed to No, then started spelling again.
“Bonny Oak.” To Maddie, I whispered, “Bonny Oak Cemetery is near here. Is that where you’re buried, Henry?”
The planchette moved faster, this time across numbers.
4-3-2-3-4-3-2-3, then H-I-D-E.
“I don’t understand—” I began, and the planchette pressed hard against the board, so hard it was digging into the paper.
Wildly, the planchette began moving backwards through the alphabet. I was so entranced that, for a moment, I couldn’t focus on Maddie’s frantic whispers until she yelled, “Tell it goodbye! Move the planchette to Goodbye!”
I tried, but it was now making figure eights.
The transformer on the pole beside the gazebo blew, showering the gazebo with sparks. I screamed and jumped to my feet, as did Maddie. The board went flying, but we didn’t attempt to grab it as we raced to the house.
Sprinting up the front steps, we shoved each other through the door and slammed it behind us. I threw the bolt and frantically flipped the light switch, even though obviously the power was out.
“What just happened, Maddie?” I gasped.
“Someone—something—was trying to escape the board. And we didn’t shut the board down correctly. I’m gonna sage this whole freaking place tomorrow.”
“We are never doing that again. Never.” I googled the power company’s service request number and reported the outage. The dispatcher said they had a crew nearby and would send them right out. Thank God. I didn’t think I could stand to spend the night in the dark. Maddie seemed to feel the same.
“Maybe we should get a motel room,” she said.
“There are no motels in Grundy County. We’d have to go to Manchester, and we couldn’t bring the kittens.”
Maddie waved her hand dismissively. “We could sneak them in.”
“The power company is on its way. Let’s write down what Henry told us before we forget.”
I texted everything we could remember to myself on my phone. If I didn’t lose her nerve, we’d investigate at Bonny Oak cemetery tomorrow.
No electricity meant no heating pad, so we each collected a kitten in a towel and snuggled them like babies as we sat on my bed. We passed last night’s wine bottle between us and drank until it was gone. At least the power company was good on its promise. The crew arrived in fifteen minutes, and they had the electricity restored within the hour.
“Well, look on the bright side,” Maddie offered as she gently returned her kitten to the box. “At least Henry thought you were hot enough to talk to.”
“I hate you,” I said.
When we went to bed, I didn’t cut off the bathroom light, and Maddie didn’t either. Soon, Maddie was snoring softly beside me. It took me a little longer to fall asleep, even with the wine.
I awoke at 2:45 a.m., fifteen minutes before the feeding alarm went off. I cut it off so it wouldn’t disturb Maddie, then padded down the hallway to retrieve the formula.
“What the hell?” I muttered, as I stepped in a puddle of water.
“Oh, no,” I groaned and flipped on the light to see if it was coming from beneath the refrigerator or the sink. To my consternation, it appeared to be coming from neither. There was a trail of water leading from the front door, which was still bolted, to the kitchen entryway. I swallowed hard and stared at it for a moment. It was raining now, but it hadn’t been raining when we fled the gazebo, had it? The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I grabbed a knife from the drawer by the sink.
I searched the house as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake Maddie, then sat on the floor of the utility room to feed the kittens.
“Calm yourself,” I chided under my breath. “Maddie must’ve stepped in a puddle.”
I placed the kittens back in their box, then went to return the formula to the kitchen. Feeling silly, I replaced the knife and cleaned up the water before flipping off the light. I glanced at the lake out of habit and gasped when I saw the shadow of a man beside the gazebo. It moved so fast I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it at all, so I pressed my face to the window and peered out, looking for any sign of movement.
A shadow crossed right in front of the window, momentarily blocking my view. I stumbled backward. Someone was on my back deck.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. My phone was in the bedroom and it felt like it was a million miles away. I glanced at the window, then at the kitchen entryway.
Bill Johnston stood between the kitchen and living room. I could see straight through him.
I would’ve screamed if I could’ve sucked in any air at all.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Where’s Aubrey?”
I backed away from him, shaking my head.
“Bill,” I whispered.
He cocked his head, eyebrows drawn in puzzlement. “How do you know me? Who are you?”
He took a step toward me, and I stumbled backwards, sobbing.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. “It’s like I was asleep and I heard someone calling my name. Was that you?”
I nodded and scuttled backwards to press myself against the kitchen door. Bill frowned and stopped advancing. Something beside me caught his gaze and he leaned in to peer at it.
“2020?” he asked, looking at the calendar. “No. It’s not. I’m dreaming. It’s 2015.”
“You left a tackle box,” I squeaked. “Under this house. Then you … you drowned.”
Bill looked at me wild-eyed, then he laughed, but it sounded high-pitched. Scared.
This time he backed away.
“No!” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not dead. No!”
My breath left me in a rush. I slid down the wall like melted butter, until I was sitting flat on the floor.
“Hey!” someone said, and I nearly screamed.
Maddie rushed into the kitchen, right through the entryway Bill Johnston had just disappeared from. “Jericho, are you okay?”
“I saw him,” I gasped, feeling a tear streak down my face. “I saw Bill Johnston.” I pointed at the doorway. “Right there, just now.”
With my voice hitching like a child’s, I told Maddie everything he said. Despite everything that had happened that evening, despite a lifetime of Maddie’s hoodoo voodoo hocus pocus, Maddie didn’t believe me.
“Honey, are you sure … are you sure you weren’t sleepwalking? Remember how you used to do when we were kids?”
“I fed the damn cats!” I hissed. “I fed the cats and I walked back in here and I saw him. Plain as day, no doubt who he was. I was awake, and I know what I saw, Maddie. He looked at me. He talked to me—”
“Okay! Okay,” Maddie held up her hands to pacify me, which only made me madder. I struggled to my feet, ignoring the hand Maddie offered. I was shaken, and being unreasonable, but I couldn’t stop, even though if Maddie had been the one to see him, I would’ve been skeptical, too.
Without a word, I went back to bed. Maddie didn’t follow. Several minutes later, she walked into the bedroom with her burning sage and doing a ritual she called smudging.
“He wasn’t mean,” I said irritably. “He was … lost. Confused. He seemed scared.”
“It not only removes negative energy, it promotes clarity. It sounds like he needs clarity. He doesn’t realize he’s dead. Maybe realizing that will make him remember what happened.”
Maddie set the bowl of sage on the nightstand, then sat beside me on the bed and took my hand. “I’m sorry. I should’ve believed you. You just caught me off-guard.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Nothing like that’s ever happened to me. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Well, try to sleep. I’m going to stay up a little while and I’ll take care of the kittens. I’m going to see what else I can find out about Garrett Langston.”
I nodded, and Maddie leaned to kiss my forehead. “Yell if you need me.”
After Maddie walked out, I lay in bed and looked over Bill’s profile page again. My fingers froze on one picture. Bill and Aubrey standing on a football field, with some bleachers behind them. He was wearing a red Dierks Bentley shirt that had Sounds of Summer Tour, 2015 printed on it in white. It was the same shirt he’d been wearing in my kitchen.
“I’m not crazy,” I whispered. “I know you were here.”
I lay there for a minute, bracing myself, then I said his name.
“Bill Johnston. Bill Johnston. Bill Johnston,” I said, then laughed at myself, because it reminded me of playing Bloody Mary or saying Beetlejuice.
“Girl, you are losing your damn mind,” I muttered, and swung my feet over the side of the bed to go to the bathroom.
“Hey,” a voice said, and I whipped my head around to see Bill Johnston standing in front of my dresser like a hologram.
“Whuuuh!” I gasped.
We stared at each other for a long moment, then I said, “Let me call my sister, Maddie. She can tell us what to do.”
Bill shook his head. “She can’t see me.”
“She knows about these things—”
“She can’t see me,” he repeated. “I saw her in the living room and I thought it was Aubrey because of her blond hair. I tried to talk to her.”
“But she’s an empath. Sensitive to stuff like this. I don’t know—”
Bill pinched his nose. “She’s not the empath. You are. For whatever reason, you see me. You hear me. She can’t. I stood right in her face.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“I can’t remember what happened. It’s all fuzzy, like a dream. The last thing I remember clearly was fishing with my best friend, Garrett, on his birthday. October 26th at Guntersville. We caught a mess of bluegills. Some really nice ones.”
He smiled when he said that, and I almost smiled, too. I was glad, at that moment, that his last memory had been a happy one.
His expression darkened. “When did this happen to me?”
“November 15th. Here, at Ramsey Lake.” I picked up my phone and pulled up the article in the Herald. Stupidly, I tried to hand the phone to Bill. He did grin, then—a wide, beautiful grin that rendered me speechless.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m new to this ghost stuff, too.”
He sat beside me on the bed, the same place Maddie had sat, and I stared at him in awe. I saw such minute details—the little tear on the collar of his red shirt, the way his black hair curled over his ears …
He looked at me and I managed to stop gawking at him long enough to hold up my phone for him to read. His blue eyes scanned it and he frowned.
“I always wear my life vest when I’m night fishing. Especially in the winter time. The water’s too cold, and too many things could happen. I’d just bought new vests, too, for the Guntersville trip.”
“I bet you usually take your tackle box when you’re fishing, too,” I said. “Kind of a sage green color, with your name and address written in Sharpie?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You found it where?”
“Who are you talking to?” Maddie asked from the doorway and Bill vanished.
I made a split second decision. Maddie would have to leave tomorrow night to get back to school. She wouldn’t go if she was worried about Jericho’s mental state, and vet school was very demanding. I couldn’t mess that up for her.
“Talking to myself,” I said, then faked a yawn. “Reasoning out a crazy dream.”
I hated lying to my sister, but Bill wouldn’t harm me. I somehow knew that. He just had to remember so I could help him.
Maddie gave me a long, searching look and said, “Okay, get some sleep. We’ll worry about it tomorrow.”
The next day, a search of Bonny Oak Cemetery turned up three Henrys, but the most recent grave of the three was dated in 1967. I felt impatient, because I couldn’t see how this could be connected to Bill, but Maddie was looking for answers, to any of it.
“Maybe we should go see Sheriff Langston,” Maddie said. “He was Bill’s best friend. If we can’t find Officer Reid, maybe he’s the next best thing.”
I mulled it over. I wanted to talk to Bill again, but I would wait until Maddie left. As for Langston, I couldn’t afford to trust anyone except for Officer Reid until Bill told me differently.
“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t want to take him the film, or even mention it. Not yet. Maybe we could ask a few questions, feel him out?”
“Okay,” Maddie said. “Agreed.”
When we pulled into the parking lot of the detention center, I turned off the switch and looked at Maddie. “What am I going to say to him that doesn’t sound completely nuts?”
Maddie laughed. “I have no idea.”
A bored corrections agent glanced at us through a plexiglass window when we stepped inside. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“We’re looking for Sheriff Langston,” I said. “Is he in?”
“No,” she said, glancing back over her shoulder. “But I think maybe Officer Barton is still here. Can she help you?”
“No,” I said. “It was something personal, concerning a mutual friend.”
“Well … would you like to leave him a message to call you?”
“No, thank you.”
“Well, that was a bust,” Maddie said, just as I looked up at the looming courthouse in front of the detention center. I gave Maddie a sharp nudge. Garrett Langston was jogging down the courthouse steps straight toward us.
“Ladies,” he said, tipping his hat as he jogged past.
“Sheriff, wait!” I said, and he turned to face us, just as two squad cars pulled up. We all stopped to watch four officers escort four very loud, very rowdy men from the backseats.
“You got this?” the sheriff called to them and one of them called and shouted back, “Oh, yeah.”
He turned back to me and smiled.
“I was wondering if we might have a word …”
“Sure.” He turned toward the jail, then back at us with a frown. “You know what? Would you mind if we talk over there?” He gestured at a picnic table beside the courthouse and smiled. “Might be a little quieter out here, at least until they get those guys booked.”
“That would be fine,” I said.
We didn’t talk until everyone sat at the table, then the sheriff said, “What can I do for you ladies?”
“I think we had a mutual friend,” I began. “Bill Johnston?”
The sheriff blinked, then leaned back to study us. His friendly expression vanished as he fiddled with the wedding band on his left hand.
“Haven’t heard that name in awhile. How did you know Bill?”
“Old friends,” I said. “I bought Judge Marlow’s house, out on the lake. My sister and I were just talking about him, and about his accident—”
“Really. I wondered who’d bought that. What are your names?”
“I’m Jericho James, and this is my sister, Maddie. We’re from Huntsville, Alabama.”
Langston’s frown deepened. “Bill didn’t get out much, and he and I were best friends since kindergarten. I think I would’ve remembered him mentioning two girls from Huntsville.”
“Actually,” Maddie said. “He was more like our dad’s friend. They went fishing at Brahan Spring Park a few times.”
Smart, I thought. Brahan Spring Park was the go-to for nearly every Huntsville fisherman.
Maddie glanced at me and giggled. “We, uh, both developed a bit of a crush on him, those few times when Dad would bring him home for supper.”
“But he only talked about Aubrey,” I supplied. “Aubrey and bass fishing.”
Langston gave a small nod, and his face relaxed a bit. “What do you want to know? It’s been a long time since that night.”
“I guess I just don’t understand,” I said. “Bill used to fuss on us, tell us never to get on the lake without our life vests. He said he always wore his vest when night fishing, and especially in the winter.”
Maddie gave her a sharp look, but Langston nodded. “Yeah, I’ve always wondered about that, too.”
“He had new ones, right? He was asking my dad about brands right before he went on some trip to Guntersville.”
“Yeah, I went on that one with him. I don’t know, but there were none found that night. It wasn’t like him, but maybe he forgot them and just thought nothing would happen. I wish he hadn’t taken the chance.”
I looked at him, judging. He seemed genuinely sad about Bill. Maybe he could help.
“This sounds crazy, I know, but … are you sure it was an accident?”
Langston’s frown reappeared. “Why would you think it wasn’t? I mean, you knew him. Everyone liked Bill, and he was a good guy. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt him.”
I decided to go for it. “Who is Stacey Reid?”
“Bill’s older sister. But I don’t think anyone’s called her Reid in awhile. She went back to her maiden name after the divorce. What’s she got to do with it?”
“Do you know where I can find her?”
Sheriff Langston leaned forward, his green eyes wary. “Why?”
I decided to give him a little truth. “I found something that belongs to her, at my house. A letter Bill left behind, in his tackle box. I’d like to deliver it to her.”
“You found his tackle box? Where?”
I hesitated. “Under my house. In the crawlspace.”
“Under Aubrey’s house? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Maddie and I looked at each other.
“Aubrey’s house?” Maddie asked.
“You said you bought Judge Marlow’s house, right?” he asked me. “That’s Aubrey’s dad. That was Aubrey’s house back then.”
I glanced at Maddie, trying to process it.
“Do you have the letter with you?” Langston asked. “I’ll get it to Stacey.”
“No, I don’t. I’d really like to give it to her myself, though. I’d like to meet Bill’s sister.”
“Stacey doesn’t like to talk about him with strangers. Bring me the letter, and I’ll make sure she gets it.”
I nodded, and stood. Maddie and the sheriff stood as well.
“Thank you for your time, Sheriff,” I said, and offered my hand.
Langston shook my hand. “Bring me that letter,” he said again. “Or I can swing by sometime and pick it up. Nice to meet you, ladies.”
“Nice to meet you,” we murmured, and walked toward my car.
Langston gave a little wave and headed for the jail. As I started the car, I glanced up to see a blond woman rushing toward Langston. He smiled and greeted her with a kiss.
It was Aubrey Marlow.
Langston shot us a guilty look over her shoulder as she embraced him and I quickly backed out.
“Do you see that?” I asked Maddie.
“Oh, I saw it, alright.” Maddie looked as troubled as I felt. “Maybe he’s not as good a friend as he acts.”
We arrived back at home just a few minutes late for the kittens’ feeding.
“I don’t want to leave you,” Maddie said. “Not with everything that’s going on. Maybe I can—”
“I’ll be fine. We’ve got a few new leads now.”
“I can come back Friday night,” Maddie said. “And help you work on things from my end in the meantime. I was thinking about the film. I have a friend—a good friend—at UT who works in a photo lab. I think you should let me take the film. I’ll get him to develop it, and make copies.”
“Okay,” I said. “But Maddie—”
“I know,” she said. “I’ll stay right with him the whole time. You can trust me with this.”
I stood on the front porch and watched until Maddie backed out of the drive. Then I went back inside, threw the bolt and closed my eyes.
“Bill,” I said softly. “Are you here?”
“Hey,” he said.
I opened my eyes and smiled. “Hey, we’re getting good at this.”
Bill smiled, too, but he looked haggard. Tired.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “I mean, other than the dead thing?”
He laughed, and this smile seemed easier. “I’m okay. Has anything else happened?”
I hesitated. “Have you remembered anything else?”
“No. I’m trying, but … it’s so weird here. Time is different now.” He frowned, but then shook his head. “What’s your name?”
“Jericho. Jericho James.”
“Jericho,” he said slowly, and that smile reappeared. “I like it. Unusual.”
“Named after a Copper Chief song,” I blurted.
He tipped his head, blue eyes twinkling. “Well, I hope it’s a good one.”
“It is.” I sighed. There was no easy way to do this. “I saw Garrett today.”
Bill’s eyes lit up. “You did? How is he?”
“You two were close, huh?”
“Yeah!” He gave me a searching look. “I think I’ve figured out something about you. When you don’t want to answer a question, you ask one.”
“Do I?” I said, and he laughed.
I took a deep breath. “Was he a cop when you …”
“Yeah, a corrections officer straight out of high school, then the academy when he turned 21. He always knew that’s what he wanted to do, be just like his old man.”
That stalled me. “His old man?”
“His dad’s the sheriff.”
“Uh, not now,” I said. “Garrett is the sheriff.” I snapped my fingers. “When I was trying to find articles on you, I found something. The week after you … your accident, the sheriff was murdered. A traffic stop. I’m not sure if they caught the guy. I didn’t know he was Garrett’s father.”
Bill blinked. “Oh, man. First me, then his dad. Garrett …”
“Why do you think you didn’t leave the box for him? Did you trust him?”
“With my life,” Bill said without hesitation. “Garrett is—was—like a brother to me. Whatever happened to me, I know Garrett wasn’t involved.”
I sank into a kitchen chair. “I don’t know how else to tell you this, but when I was leaving today, I saw something. Aubrey. She was there with Garrett.”
Bill shrugged. “They’re friends. We grew up together.”
“No, Bill … she was kissing him. He wore a wedding band. I think they’re married.”
He stared at me for a long moment, then said, “Oh,” and turned his back.
“Bill, I’m sorry—”
“No.” He faced me, but his smile seemed pasted. “It’s okay. Five years, right? How can I judge them? But I can tell you, whatever happened to me, Garrett was not involved.”
Before I could think of anything to say, Bill frowned and reached to get something from beneath the table. “Is this real?” he asked. “Can you see this?”
He held one of the kittens in his hand. Like him, I could see right through it.
I ran to the utility room. One kitten was crawling around, but the frail one lay on its side, panting.
I looked at Bill, then we both stared at the kitten in his hand.
“No!” I cried, as she glanced back at the box. The frail kitten was still.
“What just happened?” Bill asked, then jerked his head to stare out the window. “I have to go. There’s something out there. Someone’s here in this place with me, and I don’t want to lead him here.”
Like the ghost kitten, Bill vanished.
Troubled, I took the kitten and buried it beside its mother and siblings. When I tried to feed the remaining kitten, it wouldn’t eat.
“Not you too,” I murmured.
Maddie had left me an emergency number for a vet with experience handling neonatal kittens. I called her and was instructed to bring the kitten in.
After dropping it off, I decided to drive to Cookeville. I needed to find Bill’s sister.
At the Highway Patrol office, the clerk volunteered little more information than she had on the phone, but she did acknowledge they had a trooper named Stacey Johnston, and she allowed me to leave a message. I jotted a quick note with my name and number and wrote, Please contact me regarding your brother, Bill.
After a quick stop at the grocery store, I headed home. I fumbled for the keys in my coat pocket, but froze when I realized the door was ajar. Kicked in and splintered.
Heart thumping, I stood on my front porch, listening for any sound from inside. Then I ran to my car and locked myself inside before calling 9-1-1.
The sheriff and another officer responded to the call.
“Wait here,” he mouthed, and they entered through the front door, weapons drawn.
It seemed like an eternity before Garrett Langston reappeared. He stood on my deck and motioned me inside.
The place had been ransacked. Drawers dumped, furniture toppled. My jewelry was still in the box on my dresser, along with some cash. The only thing that appeared to be missing was Bill’s tackle box.
Furious, I turned on the sheriff. “You did this! You took it!”
Garrett’s eyes narrowed and he placed a hand on the deputy’s shoulder, stopping him as he attempted to move between us. Then he laughed. “You think I did this? You think I broke into your house?”
“You’re the only one who knew about the note, and it’s the only thing that’s gone. What did you do? He trusted you.”
Garrett’s face flushed. “You don’t know me. You barely knew him. I resent like hell what you’re trying to say. I loved Bill. He was like a brother—”
I shot a pointed glance at the gold band on his finger. “Most men don’t marry their brother’s girlfriend.”
Garrett’s face grew even redder. He jabbed his finger in my face. “You’re talking about things you don’t understand.”
“Seems pretty clear to me,” I said.
He opened his mouth, then shut it again. “I don’t have to explain anything to you. Miss James, I advise you to get someone out here to fix that door. Also, before you make accusations, make sure there really was nothing else taken. I’m sure it’s hard to tell in this mess.”
I stayed in my bedroom until the cops finished whatever they were doing, then I gathered some things. I couldn’t stay here tonight. The only thing the burglar had found was the tackle box and the note. If he hadn’t known about the film, he did now. I made a mental note to call Maddie when I got to a motel.
I ran to the living room. I’d left it on the end table by the lamp. It, too, was gone. I tried to remember what was in my search history. If someone had killed Bill for what he’d known, who was to say they wouldn’t come back for me? Was it a love triangle, or was it more? How did Garrett’s dad tie into it all?
The notes from the seance about Henry, written on a pad beside the laptop, had been ripped off, too. I checked my phone and was relieved I still had a photo I’d taken of it before we’d visited Bonny Oak. Even though I suspected the events were unrelated, I wasn’t discounting anything at this point.
“Bill?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“Jericho.” He stood in the doorway, looking faint and hazy in the fading afternoon sun. “What happened?”
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, taking a tentative step toward him.
He shot me a helpless look. “I don’t know. I feel like … I’m trespassing. That I’m not supposed to stay here, like something is pulling me. I’m trying to fight it, but I feel like I’m disappearing.”
A tear slipped down my cheek. “Please don’t leave me. I don’t know what to do. Someone broke in here today—”
“Are you okay?” he asked, and reached for me. His hand passed right through.
“I wasn’t home. But Bill, they took the tackle box, and my laptop. There was only one person other than Maddie and I who knew about the note.”
“Garrett,” he said, then shook his head. “Jericho, I can’t believe he would do that.” He paced in front of the window. “So, it’s gone? Whatever proof I had is gone?”
“No. They only got the note. My sister has the film. We couldn’t find Stacey at first, because we were looking for Reid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Garrett said she’d divorced. I went by the Highway Patrol Office today, and left a message for her to call me.”
Bill nodded. “I hate to hear that. I liked Rick. He taught me how to drive, and play chess. It’d drive Stacey crazy, because we’d just sit and stare at the board for what seemed like hours. I called her Squirrel when we were kids because she’s so hyper, always darting around.” He shook his head. “Jericho, I’m so sorry for all this. You need to get out of here. Whatever’s on that film, someone thinks it’s worth killing for, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I’m going to a motel tonight. I’ll be okay.”
Glancing around my ransacked living room, I hoped that was true.
His handsome face looked so sad. Wistful. “Jericho, for what it’s worth … I’m glad we met, even if it came too late. I don’t feel like I have a lot of time left, and I have a lot of regrets, but right now, one of my biggest ones is that I don’t have more time to spend with you.”
“I wish that, too,” I said, trying to hide the tears that threatened again. “You’d sooo owe me, Mister. Dinner, dancing …”
He grinned. “But then you’d fall in love. I’m a great dancer.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, you’d be in love before we ever hit the dance floor. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Bill gave me that deep, genuine laugh of his and shrugged. “I can’t argue that. I’m not doing great at fighting it right now.”
I batted my eyes, trying to ignore the flutter that statement caused. “You’d be my … boo?”
“Oooh!” He winced. “That’s pretty bad. But yeah, I’d love to be your boo. And you wouldn’t need an Ouija board to make me come running.”
My smile faded and I felt dangerously near tears again. “It’s not fair, Bill. This sucks.”
He glanced out the window. “Yeah, it does. But it’s getting dark, and you need to get out of here, get somewhere safe.”
In the car, I used my hands-free device to call Maddie and fill her in about the burglary as I pulled out of the drive.
“Oh, my God! Look, don’t go to Manchester. Just keep driving. Come to me. My friend developed the film. Jericho, Bill witnessed a murder.”
Before I could reply, a pair of headlights swung out behind me, blinding me. They were coming up fast.
“I think someone’s following me!” I cried, just as it rammed me.
“Jericho, what’s happening?” Maddie yelled.
The car rammed mine again. I lost control, screaming as my car left the road and plunged into the icy waters of Ramsey Lake.
Floating. My car was floating. Bobbing in the black water.
I unfastened my seatbelt and hit the button to roll down my window before the electric failed. Water came in fast—shocking me. I managed to suck in a deep breath before the car sank nose-first, and I had to fight gravity to push myself through the opening. In the cold blackness, I became disoriented. It was impossible to even tell which way was up.
Struggling, panicking, I closed my eyes.
I felt him.
Even though there should be no way to see him, I opened my eyes to see Bill beside me.
Relax, he said. Let your body take you to the surface.
I forced herself to go limp and my body started to rise. I saw air bubbles rising from the car and propelled myself in their direction.
Gasping, choking, I broke the surface. A spotlight moon illuminated the hulking pines and I kicked toward land.
I flopped onto the grassy bank, sputtering. Rough hands seized my hair.
I slapped and clawed at him as he dragged me up the embankment. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t breathe.
A stranger’s face loomed above me. He pointed a gun to my forehead and I squeezed my eyes shut.
“No!” Bill roared.
I opened my eyes to see him charge my attacker. Bill fell right through him, but he scrambled to his feet and charged the gunman again. And again.
The pine tree beside us exploded, as if struck by lightning from a clear sky, and the wind screamed.
The attacker froze.
At first, I thought it was Bill, but he stood wide-eyed beside me.
The gunman flew backward, thrown by some unseen force.
I couldn’t see him—not like I could Bill—but somehow I knew.
Sirens screamed in the distance. I looked into Bill’s panicked face and fainted.
Someone was patting my face. Saying my name.
I winced and tried to push the hand away. “Bill?” I whispered, then squinted up at Garrett Langston’s alarmed face.
Garrett glanced over his shoulder and moved so I could see another officer standing over my attacker’s unconscious form. “Who is that? What happened to him?”
“Just unconscious, I think. Was there anyone else here?”
No one you’d believe, I thought, then shook my head. “He tried to kill me.”
“You don’t know him?” Garrett asked.
“No. He ran me into the lake, but then I got out and he was dragging me. I passed out.”
“Your sister called me, and we were nearby. You scared me to death.”
Looking into his eyes, I could almost believe Bill’s assessment of him, but I still had so many questions.
He insisted I go to the hospital to get checked out, and I didn’t argue. I had no car, no place to go, and I didn’t want to be alone right now.
Garrett waited with me in the emergency room. He raked a hand through his sandy hair and said, “Stacey Johnston called me. She was asking about you, who you were. I didn’t really know what to tell her. She doesn’t know about any Huntsville family Bill knew. Like I said, he was basically a homebody. I told her you’d found a letter addressed to her from Bill, and she was on her way to get it. So, you’re telling me it’s gone now?”
I nodded. “The whole tackle box, and my laptop. Why would a burglar take that, and leave jewelry and cash?”
Someone jerked the privacy curtain open. I looked up to see Aubrey Langston standing there. She wore a nurse’s uniform.
“Garrett? What’s going on?” she asked, but her eyes were on me. She looked pale. Frightened.
“Excuse me,” he murmured, and walked toward his wife. Aubrey gave me another long, lingering look before she pulled the curtain closed again.
I lay back against the pillows. They’d given me a hospital gown to change into, to get out of my wet clothes, but I still hadn’t shaken the chill from my plunge into Ramsey Lake. I pulled the thin blanket up under my chin and closed my eyes.
The curtain rustled and Aubrey Langston reappeared with more blankets.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay? Do you feel sluggish or dizzy?”
“I can’t get warm.”
“Maybe we can fix that.” Aubrey put two extra blankets on me and said, “Now let’s check your oxygen levels.”
I said nothing as Aubrey took my vitals and then my blood.
“So,” Aubrey said. “Garrett said you knew Bill.”
“Just a little.”
Aubrey nodded, and made a sniffling sound. Her face pinched like she was about to cry. “It was about this time of year when they pulled him out of that lake. I’ll never forget that night. You’re very lucky.” She cleared her throat. “Stacey Johnston is here, and she wants to see you.”
I nodded. “I want to see her, too.”
“The doctor will be in here in a minute, but I’ve already sent up an order for a room. You seem to be doing fine, but I know Dr. Cauley. He will want to keep you overnight for observation, so I’ll let Stacey in when we get you settled. And your sister called the station back and they gave her Garrett’s number. He told her what happened, and she’s on her way.”
“God, I bet she’s frantic.”
“Garrett told her that you were okay, in good hands and would probably be kept overnight for observation. He’s great at calming people down.” Aubrey paused, her hand on the curtain. “Garrett won’t tell me much, but he says you suspect him of … something. If you don’t believe anything else I tell you, you can believe he’s a good man. He loved Bill. I don’t know what we would’ve done without him.”
The doctor came in a few moments later, and Aubrey was right. He wanted to keep me overnight. Garrett came in and took my statement. He told me that my attacker was refusing to talk, and they were in the process of running his prints. He promised to let me know as soon as he found out anything.
After what felt like an eternity, I was transported to a room on the third floor. A nurse took my vitals again and got me settled in.
Someone rapped on the door, then a pretty dark-haired woman stepped inside.
“Jericho James?” she asked, as she walked to the bed and offered her hand. “I’m Stacey Johnston.”
“You look just like him,” I blurted.
“That’s what people always told us,” she said, and pulled a chair to my bedside. “Garrett said you’d found something that belonged to Bill?”
I nodded. “A tackle box, in the crawl space beneath my house.”
“Aubrey’s old house, correct?”
“Yes, I bought it from Judge Marlow.”
Stacey studied me “And there was a letter? Addressed to me?”
“Not exactly. It was a note, written on a napkin, and three rolls of film. It read, In the event of my death, give this to Stacey Reid, THP.”
Stacey leaned forward, blue eyes wide. “And it was stolen?”
“The note was, and the tackle box. Not the film. It was somewhere safe.”
“Who has it?” she asked.
When I hesitated, she said, “I promise I’ll protect you. I have friends at the TBI. I need to know what’s on that film.”
“How do you feel about Garrett Langston?” I asked.
Stacey frowned. “Garrett? Why do you ask?”
“Because he was the only one who knew about the note, and then my house was robbed. The tackle box and my laptop were the only things taken.”
Stacey sat in silence. Finally, she said, “It’s hard for me to believe Garrett would hurt Bill. Or anyone, for that matter. He’s the one who pulled Bill out of the lake that night, and if not for him—”
The door flew open and Maddie barrelled inside. She ran to my bedside and seized me in a fierce hug. “Are you okay? I was so scared!”
“I’m fine.” I gestured at Stacey. “Maddie, I’d like you to meet—”
“Bill’s sister,” Maddie supplied. “You look just like him. Oh, thank God you’re here.”
Maddie dug in her purse and handed Stacey an envelope full of pictures. “Most of them were normal shots, and I’ll give you those, too, but the top five are what Bill wanted you to see. I made copies, and I’ve got the negatives in a safe place, in case anything happened to me before I got them to you.
Stacey took them from her. Her face blanched when she looked at the first one, then she gasped when she looked through the other four.
Someone knocked on the door and Garrett Langston stepped inside, with Aubrey on his heels. Her eyes were red and swollen.
“Stacey, I need to talk to you,” he said.
“About your father?” she snapped, jumping to her feet. “This whole time, I thought you were his friend. I thought—”
“What are you talking about?”
Stacey thrust the pictures at him. “This is what Bill hid for me. I guess we know why he didn’t come to you.”
Garrett gaped at the pictures, then stumbled back against the wall. Aubrey stared at Stacey with huge, tear-filled eyes.
Stacey advanced on Garrett, shoved his chest. “I always thought it was so lucky you found him that night. Was it luck, Garrett, or were you trying to protect your father?”
“Stop!” Aubrey shoved between them. “Garrett didn’t do anything, and none of this is his fault. It’s mine.”
“Aubrey—” Garrett said, and she waved him off.
“No! Just … listen. Bill came to me that night. He told me when he was fishing from the bank he’d seen something. Something he wasn’t supposed to see. He saw Garrett’s dad kill that man, and he was scared. He didn’t know whether he’d been spotted or not. I didn’t know what to do, either. Bill told me not to tell anyone, but I told my dad. I thought he could help, but he was in on it, too. The next night was when Bill … I knew he hadn’t been fishing, and I knew it wasn’t an accident. That’s why I left home. Not because I was pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” Maddie and I said simultaneously.
“That’s why Garrett married me,” Aubrey said, sobbing. “He married me to take care of Bill’s son.”
“My dad, Aubrey,” Garrett interrupted. “So, your father murdered him, too? It wasn’t a random shooting, was it? He was cleaning up.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t. I’m so sorry. I never meant for anyone to get hurt.”
Garrett scrubbed his hand over his face. “This whole time … you let me sit there, week after week, having Sunday dinner with the man who—Jesus, you told him about the letter, too. The letter Jericho found? You almost got her killed, too.”
“I’m so sorry!” Aubrey cried. “I never thought he’d do that. I didn’t want—I didn’t know what to do. He’s my father, Garrett.”
“What about my father? What about Brody’s father?” he demanded.
“I couldn’t undo what had been done to Bill, or your father. I never thought he’d hurt her—”
Garrett looked at Stacey. “Call the TBI in. Both my office and I will cooperate fully.” He jerked his head at Aubrey. “And so will she.”
Stacey turned to me. “I’ll be back. I still need to talk to you.”
Garrett sighed. “I’m so sorry, Jericho. I should never have told anyone, even my wife, about that tackle box. I was just so surprised and bothered by the thought that what happened to Bill wasn’t an accident. I take full responsibility for what happened to you. All I can promise is that you will be safe now.”
When the three of them left, Maddie turned to me and said, “What just happened here?”
Stacey didn’t return for nearly three hours. Maddie slept stretched across the room’s two chairs, so Stacey sat on the side of my bed. “I just wanted to thank you,” she whispered. “If not for the two of you, we would’ve never known the truth.”
I smiled. “You don’t have to whisper. She sleeps like a rock. Have you learned anything else?”
“We’ve got an ID on the man Garrett’s father shot. He was a real winner, a record a mile long. If the TBI knows why the sheriff and judge conspired to murder him, they’re not saying yet. It’d be nice if we had a body, but the photographs were pretty clear. Henry Ackerman’s murder led to Randy Langston’s murder, and I bet the guy who tried to kill you can tell the TBI something about that—”
“Wait! Did you say ‘Henry’?”
Stacey lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah, that’s the murder that Bill witnessed. Henry Ackerman. Do you know him?”
I hesitated. “Look, there’s no way to tell you this without you thinking I’m crazy. No, I didn’t know Henry. I didn’t know Bill, either.”
“But you told Garrett—”
“I lied, because no one would believe the truth.”
“Try me,” Stacey said, but her expression slipped from friendly to neutral.
Cop face, I realized.
Hesitantly, I told Stacey about the seance, and about my encounters with Bill and Henry. To my consternation, Stacey laughed.
“I’m sorry, but you … you summoned my brother in a seance, and he’s been appearing to you, like … what was that movie?”
I tried to remember anything specific to tell her. “He told me your ex-husband’s name was Rick.”
“You could’ve asked anyone in town that.”
“Bill said Rick taught him how to play chess. They’d play for hours.”
Stacey’s eyes narrowed.
“And he taught him how to drive. When I see Bill, he’s wearing a red Dierks Bentley shirt. With a tear on the collar. Was he wearing that the night he died?”
“That’s the problem with your little story,” Stacey said, somewhat sharply. “Bill’s not dead. Not yet, anyway.”
“What?” I gasped.
“He’s been in a coma, for the last five years. Last year, we lost a fight with the insurance company to take him off life support. He started breathing on his own. We’re fighting now because they want to remove his feeding tube. But it may not make it to that. The last few days, he’s been getting weaker. I think we’re losing him. So, I don’t appreciate this—whatever this is. We don’t have any money, if that’s what you’re after.”
“Stacey, I swear I’m telling the truth. Maybe he’s weaker because I summoned him. He said he was in a different place before, like he was asleep, but he heard me calling him.”
“Stop,” Stacey said. “Please, just stop.” She stood. “I need to go. Thank you for your help.”
“Wait!” I grabbed Stacey’s arm as Maddie started to stir. “Please, take me to him. He can hear me. Maybe I can get him back to where he belongs.”
Stacey shook her off. “My mother doesn’t need to hear that kind of talk.”
“Please! You said he’s getting weaker. Don’t you want to try everything—anything—that might save him? I may not can help, but at least we’d know we tried.”
Shaking her head, Stacey kept walking.
“Wait! He called you Squirrel, didn’t he?”
Stacey froze. Without turning around, she asked, “How did you know that? I don’t think he called me that after he was ten.”
“He told me. He told me that it used to drive you crazy when they’d stare at the chess board, because you had the attention span of a squirrel, and he used to call you that.”
Maddie yawned and sat up. “What’s going on?”
“Bill’s alive!” I said. To Stacey, I said, “Please! Please let me try.”
“I must be out of my mind,” Stacey muttered, as she paid her parking ticket and waited on the bar to raise. I shot Maddie an excited look from the front seat.
“This is how it’s going to go down,” Stacey said. “Neither of you say a word about this craziness to my mama. I’m going to send her out for food, or something. Then you have five minutes. I will be watching you the whole time. You do not want to mess with me, do you understand?”
“Yes!” we said in unison.
“I can’t believe I let you check out against medical advice. I have lost my damn mind.”
“I should’ve known,” I said, and told them about the kitten. “It just didn’t register.”
The hospital where Bill resided was nearly forty minutes away. Stacey drove in stony silence, listening as Maddie and I talked, but not contributing much other than an occasional sharp look.
“Do you remember what the notes we took about what Henry said? I had a picture in my phone, but I guess it’s at the bottom of Ramsey Lake.”
“Maybe it saved to your Cloud?” Maddie suggested.
“This is from the Ouija board?” Stacey asked, and rolled her eyes.
“I remember Otis and Bonny Oak. 4323 and hide. Was that it?”
At the hospital, Stacey waved to the night nurses, but never slowed. “They let us come and go as we like,” she said, as she stopped outside room 114. “Now, let me do the talking.”
She opened the door. An older woman was lifting Bill’s leg, bending, then straightening it. He looked so thin and pale in his gray jogging pants and white T-shirt.
“She’s done that for years,” Stacey said softly. “To try to keep his muscles from atrophying and his joints from freezing up.”
“Well, this is unexpected!” Bill’s mother said with a smile. “Look, Bill. You have company! Some pretty girls.”
Bill’s blue eyes were open, but staring vacantly at the wall. He was clean shaven, his hair neatly trimmed, his clothes crisp. My heart ached for him, and this mother who had never let go.
“Mama, these girls are old friends of Bill’s. I’ll stay here with them and give them a moment if you want to run to the cafeteria to get a fresh cup of coffee and a snack.”
“That would be great.” She grabbed her purse and squeezed my shoulder as she passed.
Trisha is making the coffee on the floor tonight, and it’s just awful.”
“Does she stay here all the time?” Maddie asked, when the door closed.
“More than she should,” Stacey said. “But she says she can’t sleep when she knows he’s here alone. Now that he’s been getting worse, she won’t leave much.” Nodding to me, she said, “Five minutes.”
Stacey and Maddie hung back, giving me space. My heart was pounding as I approached his bed. I’d never talked to Bill anywhere besides my house. I hoped he would still be able to hear me here. Tentatively, I sat on the edge of his bed and took his hand. It felt warm, but slack in mine.
“Bill,” I said softly. “It’s Jericho. Can you hear me? Find me, Bill. Come to my voice.”
I clutched his hand with both of mine and kept talking. Kept calling for him. I would stay here until the minute Stacey made me leave. Which, unfortunately, seemed imminent.
“Okay,” Stacey said, with a little more compassion than before. “Mama won’t stay gone long. We need to go.”
I nodded, and squeezed his hand. I felt a tear slip down my cheek and lifted a hand to swipe at it. “I have to go, Bill. Can’t you find me? Please?”
My tears fell harder as I stood. I let go of his hand and looked at Stacey. “Thank you for letting me try.”
Bill’s hand clamped around my wrist, nearly pulling me down. His head twisted around and his lips moved frantically. Stunned, I watched his eyes trying to focus and realized what he was saying.
“Jericho,” he whispered. “Jericho.”
“Oh my God!” Stacey cried, and yelled for Maddie to get a nurse.
I didn’t look around at them. I stared at Bill, rapt. His eyes darted crazily for a moment, then seemed to focus on mine.
Stacey ran to his other side and clutched his free hand, but for a moment, he and I just stared at each other.
“Hi,” I said, and he did something extraordinary.
“Hey,” he rasped.
Eight months later
It was Stacey who figured out Henry’s message after a visit to Bonny Oak. On her search of the tombstones, she found one for Otis Timmons, date of death 4-3-23. His grave wasn’t as sunken as others from the same time period. With permission from Timmons family, they slowly began excavating the grave. Three feet down, they found Henry Ackerman’s corpse.
Thomas Cooper, the man who had tried to kill me, also confessed to killing Garrett’s father, per Judge Marlow’s order. The DA said he’d take the death penalty off the table if he’d testify against the Judge. Cooper’s lawyer was negotiating.
It was still unclear what charges, if any, that Aubrey Langston would face, even though Bill and I both sent letters to the DA on her behalf.
Bill was making a painstaking, but remarkable recovery.
He stood across the room from me, grinning as he leaned on his forearm braces. “You ready, baby? Here I come.”
I batted my eyelashes. “Come to Mama, Hot Stuff.”
Every day, he grew stronger. Faster. He made it across to me in record time. Laughing, I grabbed his waist as he fell into me, pinning me against the wall as he kissed me.
“It’s not dinner and dancing yet, but I’ll buy you a candy bar out of the vending machine,” he offered, and I laughed.
“I love you,” he said fervently.
“I love you too, Boo.”
“Cut that out,” someone said, and they turned to greet Garrett.
“Hey, no wonder you’re getting better so fast. Physical therapy looks fun.”
“I’ll earn those kisses however I can,” Bill said, and smacked another kiss on my cheek. “What’re you up to, brother?”
Garrett shrugged. “Well, Aubrey and I have been talking. I know you wanted to wait awhile, until you were out of this place, but I really do think there’s someone you need to meet.”
He looked into the hallway and smiled.
“He’s here?” Bill breathed, and I gave his waist a reassuring squeeze.
Aubrey ushered a little dark-haired boy inside.
Bill dipped his head and I realized how hard he was struggling not to cry. The little boy smiled and took a tentative step toward us. He was so much like Bill it made my heart hurt.
Bill released one of the braces and stooped so that he was closer to Brody’s eye level.
“Heeeeeey,” he said. “I’m—” He glanced up at Garrett, who smiled.
“We’ve always been truthful with him about who you are. He knows he has another dad who’s been sick and sleeping for awhile.”
“I have two daddies,” Brody said.
“You’re lucky,” Bill said, his voice hoarse as he looked up at Garrett.
“Aunt Stacey looks like you,” Brody said.
“She’s lucky, too,” Bill joked, and the adults laughed.
“Hey, Bud,” Garrett said. “I bet your Daddy Bill would sure like a hug.”
“More than anything,” Bill said softly. “But only if you want to.”
The little boy ran and flung himself at Bill’s legs. I leaned into him, giving him subtle support to keep him from toppling, but then he had it and dropped the other brace to take Brody in his arms. He held him until Brody began to wriggle, then he released him.
They stayed for awhile longer. Bill and Brody played with an exercise ball while he asked his son about pre-school and t-ball.
“Will you come to one of my games?” Brody asked, and Bill ruffled his hair.
“Buddy, I can’t wait. You know, we’ll have to ask your grandma to look through her pictures. I bet she has some of me and your other dad when we played t-ball.
“Copperheads!” Garrett said. “Gold shirts, white pants. Sort of like Tyler’s team. My mother hated those pants.”
Bill laughed. “My mom did, too.”
After they left, I helped Bill back to his room, then crawled up in bed with him. I lay my head on his chest and he stroked my hair.
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” Bill said.
“Takes after his daddy. Scrapper is gonna love him.”
“How is my spirit cat?” Bill asked. “You forgot to show me a picture today.”
“He’s like you, too,” I said, snuggling against him.
He kissed the top of my head. “Oh? He loves you, and comes running whenever you call his name?”
“Well, I meant tough as nails, but that, too.”
Credit : Stephanie Scissom
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