An Ice cold Grave
I'd like to dedicate this book to some people that always make me happy when I see them: Susan McBride, Julie Wray Herman, Dean James, Daniel Hale, Treva Miller, Steve Brewer, Dan Hale, and Elaine Viets. I have some more books to catch up to the ones I've missed!
My heartfelt thanks go to Margaret Maron, who introduced me to Daniel E. Bailey, a chief deputy sheriff in North Carolina. He spent a lot of time answering my questions. I hope I haven't made any huge goof-ups. Molly Weston, a most mysterious woman, helped me with climate questions, and Dr. D. P. Lyle, once again, helped me with medical issues. My friend Toni L. P. Kelner gave me some great ideas about improving the book.
THE eastern seaboard is crammed with dead people. When work brings me to that part of America, the whole time I'm there it's like wings of a huge flock of birds are fluttering inside my brain, never coming to rest. That gets old pretty quick.
But I had some jobs in the East, so here I was, driving through South Carolina with my sort-of brother Tolliver in the passenger seat. He was sleeping now, and I glanced over at him, smiling because he couldn't see me and it was okay to smile at him. Tolliver has hair as dark as mine, and if we didn't run and spend quite a bit of time outdoors, we'd both be pale; and we're both on the thin side. Other than that, we're quite different. Tolliver's dad never took him to a skin doctor when Tolliver was a teen, and his cheeks are scarred from acne; his eyes are darker than my murky gray ones, and his cheekbones are high.
When my mother married his dad, it was a case of two yuppies joining together in the hurtling path down the drain. My mother was dead now, and Tolliver's father was somewhere, who knew where? He'd gotten out of jail the previous year. My dad was still in for embezzling and a few other white-collar crimes. We never talked about them.
If you have to be in South Carolina, it's beautiful in the late spring and the early summer. Unfortunately, we were nearly at the end of an especially nasty January. The ground was cold and gray and slushy from the melt of the previous snow, and there was more predicted in a few days. I was driving very carefully because traffic was heavy and the road was not clear. We'd come up from mild and sunny Charleston. A couple there had decided their house was uninhabitable due to ghost activity, and they'd called me in to find out if there were any bodies in the walls or flooring.
The answer was clear: no. But there were bodies in the narrow back yard. There were three of them, all babies. I didn't know what that meant. They'd died so soon after birth that they hadn't had much consciousness for me to tap into, so I hadn't been able to name the cause of death, which is usually quite clear. But the Charleston homeowners had been thrilled with the results, especially after an archaeologist dug up the meager remains of the tiny bodies. They would dine out on the dead babies for the next decade. They'd handed me a check without hesitation.
That's not always the case.
Tolliver said, "Where you want to stop to eat? "
I glanced over. He wasn't fully awake. He reached over to pat my shoulder. "You tired?" he asked.
"I'm okay. We're about thirty miles outside Spartanburg. Too far? "
"Sounds good. Cracker Barrel?"
"You must want some vegetables."
"Yeah. You know what I look forward to, if we really do buy that house we talk about? Cooking for ourselves."
"We do okay when we're at home," I agreed. We had bought a few cookbooks at secondhand bookstores. We picked very simple recipes.
Our apartment in St. Louis was hanging in the balance right now. We spent so much time on the road that it was very nearly a waste of money. But we needed a home base, somewhere to collect our mail, a place to call home when we weren't driving around the United States. We'd been saving up to buy a house, probably somewhere in the Dallas area so we'd be close to our aunt and her husband. They had custody of our two little sisters.
We spotted the restaurant sign we'd been looking for after about twenty miles, and I pulled off the interstate. Though it was about two o'clock in the afternoon, the parking lot was crowded. I tried not to grimace. Tolliver just loved Cracker Barrel. He didn't mind wading through all the kitsch in the store part of the building. So after we parked (about a half mile away) we slogged through the slush past the rocking chairs on the porch, stamping our feet on the mat so we wouldn't track the icy mess inside.
The restrooms were clean, and the place was warm. We were seated almost immediately, and the waitress, a very young woman with hair as straight as a horse's tail, was delighted to serve us. Well, Tolliver. Waitresses, barmaids, maids in hotels: serving women love Tolliver. We ordered, and while I was simply enjoying not being in a moving vehicle, Tolliver was thinking about the next job.
"It's a law enforcement invitation," he warned me.
That meant less money but good buzz. We always wanted law enforcement professionals to give us a good recommendation. About half the referrals we got came from detectives, sheriffs, deputies, and so on. Though they might not believe in me, there'd be pressure on them from somewhere about a particular investigation, and they'd call me in, having heard about me through the law enforcement grapevine. Maybe there was someone influential they wanted to get off their back. Maybe they were stumped about finding someone, or they'd exhausted just about every venue in their search for a missing person. The law didn't pay well. But it paid off.
"What do they want me to do? Cemetery or the search? "
That meant I'd have to go looking for the body. The jobs I got were about fifty-fifty. Since the lightning had snaked through the window of our trailer in Texarkana when I was fifteen, I'd been able to locate corpses. If the body was in its proper grave in the cemetery, the people who hired me wanted to know the cause of death. If the body was in an unknown location, I could track it, if the search was limited in scope. Luckily, the buzz given off by a corpse was less intense as the corpse aged, or I'da been batshit crazy by now. Think about it. Caveman corpses, Native American corpses, the early settlers, the more recently deceased—that's a lot of dead people, and they all let me know where their earthly remains were interred.
I wondered if it would be worthwhile sending my little brochure to archaeological digs, and how Tolliver would go about collecting the address information for such a mailing. Tolliver was much better with our laptop than I was, simply because he was more interested.
It wasn't like he was my servant or anything.
He was the first person I'd told about my strange ability, after I'd recovered from the physical effects of the lightning strike. Though at first he hadn't believed me, he'd been willing to humor me by testing what I could and couldn't do, and as we'd worked out the limits of my odd new power, he'd become a believer. By the time I'd graduated from high school, we had our plan all worked out, and we hit the road. At first, we'd just traveled on weekends; Tolliver had had to work a regular job, too, and I'd picked up money by working in fast-food places. But after two years, he'd been able to quit the day job. We'd been on the road together ever since.
At the moment, Tolliver was playing the peg game that's always on the table at Cracker Barrel. His face looked serious and calm. He didn't look like he was suffering—but then he never did. I knew Tolliver had been having a painful time since the discovery that a woman who'd been pursuing him had had an ulterior motive; even when you're not crazy about someone, even when in fact you're a little repelled by that person, that's got to sting. Tolliver hadn't talked about Memphis much, but it had left its mark on both of us. I watched his long white fingers moving, lost in my own sad place. Things hadn't been as easy between us in the past few weeks. It was my fault…all my fault.
The waitress came by to ask if we needed refills on our drinks, managing to smile a little more brightly at Tolliver than at me.
"Where are you all going?" she asked brightly.
"Asheville area," Tolliver said, glancing up from the game.
"Oh, it's beautiful there," she said, doing her bit for the tourist board. He gave her an absent smile and bent back over the pegboard. She gave his downturned head a philosophical shrug and hustled off.
"You're staring a hole in me," Tolliver said, without looking up.
"You're just in my line of sight," I said. I leaned on my elbows. Where the hell was the food? I folded the paper band that had been around the napkin-rolled tableware.
"Your leg hurting?" he asked. I had a weak right leg.
"Yeah, a little."
"Want me to massage it tonight?"
He looked up then. He raised his eyebrows.
Of course I wanted him to massage my leg. I just didn't know if that would work out. I might do something wrong—wrong for us.
"I think maybe I'll just put some heat on it tonight," I said. I excused myself and went to the ladies' room, which was filled with a mother and her three daughters, or maybe her daughter had some friends along. They were very young and very loud, and the minute I could get into a stall, I closed the door and pushed the bolt. I stood there for a moment, leaning my head against the wall. Shame and fear, in equal amounts, clogged my throat, and for a second I couldn't breathe. Then I gasped in a long, shuddering breath.
"Mama, I think that lady's crying," said a child's penetrating voice.
"Shhhh," said the mother. "Then we'll just leave her alone."
And then there was blessed silence.
I actually did have to use the bathroom, and my leg actually was hurting. I eased down my jeans, rubbing the right leg after I'd sat down. There was a faint red spiderweb pattern above my right knee, extending to my upper thigh. I'd had my right side to the window when the lightning came in.
When I rejoined Tolliver, the food had come, and I was able to keep busy eating it. When we went out