They traipsed downstairs. The kitchen was tidy, thanks to her efforts the night before. There was a last garbage bag waiting to go out, but that was it.
In the parlor, the boxes remained where they had been.
Too bad I don’t have a ghost who wants to unpack for me, she thought.
No. She didn’t have a ghost at all. Besides, if anyone was haunting this place, it would be Gran, just as they’d said last night. And she would be a stern but kindly ghost.
But of course there were no such things as ghosts, she told herself.
“So has anything been stolen?” Jed asked. “Or even moved?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
She couldn’t help but wish that her hair wasn’t sporting blades of grass, and that her cotton sleep shirt wasn’t damp and hugging her uncomfortably.
“The silver isn’t missing?” There was a dry note in his voice, she noticed.
“No,” she said, increasingly upset.
Looking more disturbed than amused, he said, “Christie, if someone really had been in the house, either something would be missing or you would have been followed out and attacked on the lawn.”
She glanced around the parlor, and then she frowned.
The Ouija board.
It had been moved; she was certain of it.
She had set it on top of some other boxes when they had finished with it the night before, but now…
Now it was back in the center of the floor.
“That moved,” she said suddenly.
“What?” Jed asked.
“The Ouija board.”
He was so silent that she could have sworn she could hear every breath either one of them took and even their heartbeats.
“Sit down, Christina,” he suggested.
She looked at him, puzzled. Then she realized that he was trying to be patient and had reverted to being a cop trying to calm a distraught citizen.
“Christina, I admit I wasn’t a cop for all that long, but I never heard of anyone breaking into a house just to move a Ouija board.”
She flashed him an irritated glance and stiffened, refusing to give him the satisfaction of sitting down as ordered.
“I’m telling you, when I went to bed last night, that box wasn’t there.”
“Sit down,” he said again. “I can get you a glass of water or put some coffee on if that will help.” He wasn’t making fun of her, she knew. He was just treating her the same way he had when they’d all been kids and he had five years’ advantage over them.
“Jed, I’m telling you—”
“No. Let me talk,” he said.
He pushed her down into one of the big wing chairs and hunkered down in front of her, taking her hands. “It’s hard. Trust me, I understand how hard it is.”
“What are you saying?”
“Christie, you have Dan and Mike, but other than that, you’ve lost your entire family.” His face hardened for a moment, and she knew why. He occasionally talked about his late wife, and sometimes he would smile or even laugh when he talked about something fun they had done.
But he never, ever spoke about the months of her illness or her actual death.
“I’m really not sure you should keep this house,” he told her.
“I love this house.”
“But you’re dangerously close to being haunted by it. By the house itself, by the memories, good and bad, of all the years here. When I lost Margaritte, I stayed in the house for a while. I couldn’t part with any of her belongings. They even sent me to a police shrink. Eventually I gave her clothing to charities that could use it and only kept a few special mementos. And I sold the house and moved, because it was the only way I was ever going to stay sane.”
She stared at him and squeezed his hand in comfort. There were so many stages of grief: shock, disbelief, anger…no, fury. Then, sometimes, a dullness. Acceptance. Enough time to learn that you would never forget. A time to forgive. And then…not peace, as some suggested, but at least gratitude for those who tried to help you, and an ability to function and move forward, because that was somehow ingrained alongside the survival instinct.
But she had already accepted her grandmother’s death. Gran had lived a long life, and every memory she had that revolved around her grandparents was good.
The house, if it had a personality at all, was good.
“I’m okay. Really. And I love this house. Gran left it to me because she knew that. I’ll never sell it,” she told him. “But thank you for your concern.” She cleared her throat. At another time in her life, she mused, she might have been thrilled to have Jed Braden practically on his knees in front of her, but this moment was far too raw for that. “I’m all right,” she said, indicating that she wanted to get up. He stood first, and since his hand was still on hers, he helped her up, too. “Do you want coffee? Or something to eat?” she offered.
He shook his head. “No, thanks. I need to get going. I have a few self-imposed deadlines today, but I’m only a phone call away if you need me.”
He did think she was crazy, she thought. Or at least emotionally fragile right now because of Gran’s death.
“We checked every room,” she said. “There’s no one here. And like you said, no one breaks into a house just to move a Ouija board.”
He smiled a little ruefully and reached for her, pulling a blade of grass from her hair. “Call me if you need me.”
“Sure. Thank you,” she said, and smiled at him. Like hell, she fumed in silence. That damned Ouija board had moved.
She managed to keep her smile in place as she walked him to the door.
“Christina,” he said gravely, then hesitated.
“I know. There’s a killer on the loose with a thing for redheads. I’ll be very careful, I swear.”
“Sleeping on the lawn isn’t being careful.”
“I wasn’t—Oh, never mind. It won’t happen again.”
“I really am here if you need me.”
“Right,” she said, thinking, I had such a crush on you once, buddy.
He was still crush-worthy, she had to admit. The character worn into his features by life made him a striking man.
The fact that he was obviously patronizing her was a sharp wake-up slap, however.
“Thank, Jed. Thanks. I will call if I need you—if there’s a real problem,” she assured him, and there was only a slight note of coldness in her tone.
If he heard it, he gave no sign, and left.
She closed and locked the door, then looked around. The house was silent. Then the old grandfather clock chimed out the hour of 8:00 a.m. and she jumped.
With an irritated sigh, she headed for the kitchen and the coffeemaker. While coffee brewed, she raced upstairs. She’d been wearing those damp blades of grass just a little too long, and she had too much to do that day to be hanging around in her nightshirt.
Maybe she was crazy, she thought as she showered. Or at least more fragile than she had thought, too open to suggestion.
Because he was right. No one broke into a house just to move a Ouija board.
Unless they wanted you to think you were crazy.
Police Detective Shot and Killed Disposing of Victim.
Police Detective Beau Kidd Identified as Interstate Killer.
The newspaper headlines gave no indication that Beau had only been the alleged killer. A little voice inside Jed nagged at him guiltily, even though he knew, rationally speaking, that if the department, the news and everyone else had condemned Beau Kidd, there was no reason why he shouldn’t have done so, too.
He had seen the story as terrifying, horrible, sad—and a lesson about how impossible it was to know even those closest to you, those who should be trustworthy. He had been completely convinced of Beau Kidd’s guilt.
Now he was equally convinced he’d been wrong.
Sitting at his computer in his townhouse overlooking one of the area’s natural lakes, Jed called up his files on the case. He stared at the names and ages of the previous victims as if some new truth would suddenly be revealed. Kelly Dunhill, twenty-four; Janet Major, twenty-eight; Denise Grant, thirty-one; Theodosia Wallace, twenty-two; and Grace Garcia, twenty-five. Only one of them, Grace, had come from the area, and she had been born in Tampa. The others had migrated south from four different states, Kelly from Tennessee, Janet from New York, Denise from Iowa and Theodosia from California. All had long red hair, ranging from strawberry-blonde to a deep, dark auburn. Their eye colors had been different, and their heights had ranged from five six to five nine. Each one had been found in the grass off one of the state’s highways, naked, arms crossed over her chest. None had shown signs of torture, such as cigarette burns, but there had been bruises on the bodies, as if they had been pushed around when they were alive.
As if they had tried to fight their abductor.
They’d all been sexually molested, but no semen had been recovered; their killer had used condoms. Nor had there been any flesh beneath their fingernails, so there was no way to test for DNA. The killer had been very careful.
The “no’s” were endless.
No fingerprints, no DNA, no footprints, no cigarette butts found by the dump scenes. Simple physiology said that something was left behind when two bodies came together. But not in this case. Nothing of any use whatsoever had ever been discovered. It was baffling, and had been seen as indicating that someone in law enforcement or forensics had been involved.
He read through everything he had acquired from the newspapers and police files, hoping to see something, anything new, a spark of information or even misinformation that might help him. There was nothing.
He decided to take a trip down to his old precinct.
Christina looked around the house while she waited for a new singer, a local girl named Allison Chesney, to show up to work with her on a new nonfat potato chip commercial. The promotions department at the giant food manufacturer had chosen her because of one of her previous jingles, which had been filled with “pep,” or so her contact had told her.